The Old Woman

     “The Old Woman,” as I call the woodcarving that hangs in my dining room, is ugly. Nobody wants her. Nobody likes her but me. My husband dislikes her. I offered her to my children, but they refused to take her. “She is hideous and depressing,” they both said, their feelings echoed by their respective spouses. But I like her, so I hung her in my dining room, opposite my chair, where I can see her almost daily.

     Why do I like her? What attracts me to her, even though, I admit, she reminds me of an old witch? She used to hang in my parents’ living room in the 1950’s in Frankfurt, Germany when I was growing up, and makes that area come alive for me. She reflected my father’s tastes for exotic art, Russian and Asian antiques, and anything that was different, or out of the ordinary.

     That living room served many functions simultaneously − music room where I practiced piano, bedroom where I slept on the sofa bed, den where our first television set took center stage, and sitting room where we entertained friends. But, for me, that area reverberates mostly with memories of our annual Passover Seder.

     I remember as if it were happening today. The table is set with mother’s best linen, china, and crystal. Our guests, all Holocaust survivors from Poland, are seated on each side of an elongated table. Mother is hurrying back and forth bringing in tureens and platters from the kitchen. And Father − Father sits at the head of the table leading all assembled in the ritual reciting of the Hagadah, the story of the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage. He recites whole passages in Hebrew without even glancing at the text; he still remembers it all by heart. He sings the traditional tunes to his heart’s and his guests’ delight and intersperses it all with stories from the “old days,” from the days before 1939, from the days before the war, from a world that has disappeared −the world of Polish Jewry.

     Even after all these years, I can still almost hear Father talking about his beloved father, a chassid (a member of a branch of Orthodox Judaism), who wore a shtreimel (a fur hat) and a silk bekishe (a long silk coat) on the Sabbath, and immersed himself in the mikvah (ritual bath) every morning. Father also delighted relating stories of how Chassidim tried to outdo each other in telling tall tales about what marvelous deeds their Rebbe (term for rabbi used in that community) was capable of performing. One favorite was the following.

“Several Chassidim were comparing their Rebbes’ miracles. Each tale surpassing the other, one of them who was listening quietly, finally said, ‘All your tales are nothing compared to the miracle performed by my Rebbe. He was walking one day and was confronted by a gigantic lion. The lion opened its huge jaws and was about to have my Rebbe for lunch. My Rebbe stuck his hand into the lion’s mouth, reached for his tail, pulled the tail through the lion’s mouth and turned him around so that he faced away from him.’ The group was speechless, ‘How is that possible?’ One man asked. ‘Well, you see, it happened,’ was the proud reply.’”

Father also often expanded his narration recall his parents’ youth and Jewish life in a shtetl (a small town) before World War I.

“My grandparents had five children three girls and two boys. My grandfather worked in a brewery and my grandmother sold cloth at the market by the size of her forearm − that is how they used to measure in those days. At the age of ten, my father, Leib Israel, went to work as a toll collector. When farmers drove their horse-drawn wagons to the city to sell their produce, they were supposed to stop at tollbooths and pay a toll, which the government used for road repairs. As a ten-year-old boy, my father staffed one of those booths. His job was to collect the money. Often, however, the farmers tried to avoid paying, attempted to force their wagons through, and whipped him to scare him away.”

Father also recalled the hassles Jewish boys endured growing up in a small Polish town, the fights by which he had to defend himself and the teachers’ disparaging treatments. Instructors never addressed the Jewish students by name but referred to them as Zydkowie (Jew boy). His Jewish education took place in the in the heder (Jewish religious school), where he learned Hebrew prayers as well as the Hagadah he can still recite by heart. Above all, however, Father remembers the dire poverty of many Jews who had to borrow a few zlotys to buy bread for their family.

     However, Father always included one of his many jokes, which illustrate the immense lore of Yiddish humor but also often poke fun at the Poles among whom Jews lived in uneasy relationships. The following was of Father’s favorites, “A Jew and a Pole were riding on a train. The Pole asked the Jew, ‘Tell me, how come you Jews are so smart?’ The Jew answered: ‘That is because we eat a lot of herring’ ‘Really?’ came the reply. ‘Would it also work for me?’ ‘Sure.’ said the Jew, ‘I happen to have some with me and can sell it to you for thirty zlotys.’ ‘Great,’ answered the Pole. He took thirty zlotys, got his herring, and ate it. Some time went by, and suddenly the Pole said, ‘Say, how come you charged me thirty zlotys for a piece of herring when I can get it on the market place for ten?’ ‘You see,’ answered the Jew, ‘It is already working.’”

     Almost all Jews in town led a strictly Orthodox Jewish life style. Several days prior to Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), when Jews recite special prayers at dawn, the synagogue’s sexton would go around town in the Jewish neighborhood, ringing a bell and shouting, ‘Jews, wake up, it is time to go to shul (synagogue) to say selichos (the penitential prayers).’

Yes, the old woman heard many stories during those post-war-years, humorous ones, as well as tragic ones of spouses and children murdered. She witnessed both celebrations and sad good-byes as friends moved on to the United States, to Argentina, or to Brazil when their visas arrived.

     And, for the last twenty years, she witnessed the rebirth of Jewish traditions in our home here in St. Louis. She saw many Passover Seders, led by my husband, and attended by our children and grandchildren, and the lighting of Chanukah candles. She heard joyous songs on Chanukah and Purim, numerous hymns and prayers during festive Holyday observances, as well as dozens of happy birthday songs, during group birthdays celebrations whenever the whole family was in town.

     I hope that someday one of my children or grandchildren will adopt her so that she can continue to witness the unbroken chain of Jewish survival despite Hitler’s attempt to annihilate us.

[August 2010]

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