Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

17 Teves 5765 - December 29, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







A Few Shmattes

by A. Harel

A fictional story about the preparations for a wedding, in our time.


Here's the picture: Abba's face is hidden behind a humungous bunch of flowers he can barely lift; yellow pollen adorns the brim of his hat. Achoo! He sneezes, and then Achoo! — again and again.

Not to worry; it's not contagious. It's the flowers. He's simply allergic.

Ima opens the door and Abba steps in, gingerly placing the exquisite floral creation on the living room table as one would put a baby into a cradle.

And here's the kallah! Bounding up the stairs a few at a time, preceded by a rustle of taffeta. Her dress? A work of art. The dressmaker certainly lived up to her reputation!

Ima gives Shoshi hug number who-knows-what tonight. "Oh, Shoshi, my little girl. May you be very happy!"

The tears of happiness are long gone, having been stockpiled along with the broken plate shards from the engagement party. Now what remains are . . . jaws aching from nonstop smiling; hands worn out from being shaken so many times, and . . .

Exhaustion. Ima, surrounded by an aura of happiness, takes off her sensible low-heeled shoes and collapses onto the sofa.

"Ima! I can't believe it! I'm engaged! Me, Shoshi Feinhart! Engaged!"

The brand new kallah glides around dreamily in her fancy dress. A new star is born. Location: seventh heaven.

Next: In a trancelike but deliberate state, Shoshi opens up a desk drawer and produces a pen and a pad of paper. She starts to write with a self-assured hand, not stopping for a moment. Notations follow entries: some accentuated with asterisks and exclamation points. The list is extensive. One piece of paper isn't big enough. She turns the paper over and keeps writing. Abba comes out of his room in his slippers, his eyes straining with fatigue and red from pollen. Only his smile is as bright as ever.

"Oh, our little Shoshi, the kallah!" He shuffles over to his armchair. The kallah kneels at his feet and lays her hand on the arm rest.

"Dearest Abba. What will you and Ima do by yourselves when I leave the roost?"

"What will we do, our dearest youngest child? We'll simply rejoice for you. And thank the Creator of the World. And dance."

"Well, right this minute Abba, you certainly don't look capable of dancing. You look more like a monument to a father who has just seen his last child become engaged."

Abba laughs, but his smile gradually fades as his chin falls to his chest.

"Abba, are you awake? Wait a minute! I want to show you something!" And Shoshi shows him her newly-composed lists.

"I've made a list of all the things we have to buy. For the wedding."

"What's the rush, child? The wedding is in three months! There's plenty of time."

"But the list is a real long one, Abba. And these three months will fly by like a ballistic missile! You'll see!"

"Let's look at it tomorrow. We'll go over it and discuss everything tomorrow. . . " And at that, Abba falls asleep.


A smattering of crumbs. Two coffee mugs. Abba and Ima are at the kitchen table. You can feel the elation in the air. "Good morning, Shoshana!" Ima cries.

"You didn't wake me up! It's already after 8:30!" Shoshi says accusingly as she joins them at the breakfast table.

"Don't worry. They'll dance in your honor at the Seminary even though you're a bit late. They'll dance for you all day! Should I make you a cup of coffee?"

"Thanks Ima, oh yes . . . no . . . No. I couldn't drink a thing this morning. I'm so excited! Ima, I just simply can't fathom it! I'm engaged! Can you believe it? I'm a kallah!" she says as she rests her head on Ima's shoulder and closes her eyes.

Abba gets up from the table. "The shver is leaving for kollel!" he announces. "It's ten to nine already."

"Oy, just a minute, Abba!" Shoshi's head shoots up. "I want to show you my list."

Abba sits down again. Ima dons her reading glasses. From somewhere Shoshi pulls out her pages of lists. "Here," she puts them on the table, between the coffee mugs. Abba picks them up and starts reading aloud. "Number one, a wedding gown from The Perfect Bridal Salon."

"The Perfect Bridal Salon?" Ima raises her eyebrows.

"Isn't that the expensive store on Hagefen Street"

"Uh yes, it is."

"But . . . isn't it too expensive?"

"Well . . . maybe their gowns are a bit more than other places — but justifiably so! The gown will be made to order for me according to my specifications . . . and it is an opportunity of a lifetime, isn't it Ima?"

"Once in a lifetime . . . that's right Shoshi," Ima says as she looks closely at her daughter. She considers her words carefully and then says in a lower tone of voice:

"You know Shoshi, Ilana's wedding gown gemach is right down the block. Everyone I know who borrowed a dress from there was happy with it."

"Everyone you know? Who are they, anyhow? You mean the Schwartz daughter? Well, they . . . they don't have any money to spare. Her father learns full-time."

"Your father is also an avreich," Ima reminds Shoshi, surveying the crumbs on the table.

"An avreich who doesn't like to be late for kollel," Abba says as he gets up from the table with a smile on his face.


The chair creaks. The room is silent. Oh, so silent.

Shoshi bites her lower lip. "But anyways, Ima, there's no comparison! Ilana's gemach. . . I know how those dresses look. The underskirts are torn and gray from wear and stick out under the tulle. All the seams are unraveling and sometimes the dress is no longer even really white. Imagine that."

"All right, we'll check into it," Ima says as she gets up, picks up the coffee mugs and starts to brush the crumbs off the table. She packs a sandwich for Abba. Two slices of bread spread with white cheese. A slice of tomato. Salt. Just like always. Shoshi bites her lower lip again, in deep thought.

"In any case, you can always tell if a bride is wearing a dress from a gemach or not . . ."

"Don't worry, Shoshana. We won't try to put anything over on you. The evening will be completely yours, right?"

Ima forces her mouth into a smile. Shoshi doesn't notice the new wrinkle that appears on her Ima's face. She smiles, daydreams a little, and suddenly springs up, rushing to the Seminary. She falls straight into the welcoming arms of her ecstatic friends in a frenzy of dance, hugs and kisses! Shoshi Feinhart! The first kallah in the class!


The gown is merely the first item on the list. There are lots to follow. Two days pass. Shoshi adds another piece of paper and the list grows.

Abba and Ima sit in the kitchen. Two mugs of coffee on the breakfast table. A smattering of crumbs. The bagged sandwich. Staring with astonishment at the list thumbtacked to the kitchen cork board, right next to the electric and gas bills.

Silence reigns in the Feinhart household.

Let the shopping expeditions begin! Fill those shopping bags! Schlep shopping bags. Lift shopping bags. Stuff more into them. And then put the stuff away. Bed linens. Towels. Kitchen utensils. Accessories for the home. Clothes. Seven columns of the list are devoted to clothes — seven!

Ima reads them out loud. With a slow cadence. Then Shoshi does her best. "Well, for sheva brochos, I can manage with only five outfits. I'll figure out something," she muses.

Ima's shopping expeditions back and forth all over during the last month can surely fill her shopping quota for the next decade.

"I've had it! I refuse to schlepp another bag!" Shoshi boldly announces in desperation. But that very night she comes back from who-knows-which department store, again laden with packages.

"It's so important to begin married life knowing that everything is brand new! Sparkling! Shining! The dishes. The best-quality towels. Everything! Right, Ima?"

"The only thing that must be new is the chosson," Ima says in her characteristic calm, deliberate tone. "Everything else is just decoration. Cosmetics! Abba and I gain a new son — your chosson. A new soul. A new life for the two of you, with Hashem's help."

Shoshi listens. "That's true. But there's no contradiction!" she continues to stare into space and daydream about the exquisite curtains that will adorn the windows in her future home . . . and the vases full of flowers . . . the shiny china closet — in short, everything that makes a home warm and inviting.


When the family reaches item number 8 — read: head coverings, Ima realizes just how old-fashioned and conservative she has become. A new furrow appears in her forehead when Shoshi announces, "Everyone knows that what passes for 100% natural is really synthetic!"

"So what are we supposed to do?" asks Ima, who is really feeling her age by now.

"What we have to do," says Shoshi, "is to order a handmade sheitel. Then you know for sure that you get what you pay for."

"Ahhhhh . . . you get what you pay for," Ima echoes her daughter. "And how much. . . " she adds warily, "how much does this cost?"

"Oh, it's not expensive! I got Tsila's phone number. Tsila the sheitelmacher. Her sheitels really aren't expensive!"

"Like how much?" Ima says, as she takes a deep breath.

"Twelve hundred."


"Dollars," Shoshi says, looking down at the floor.

"Twelve hundred dollars?" Ima gulps. "Shoshana! I haven't spent that much on my own sheitels during the last ten years! Twelve hundred dollars?!"

"Ima, I know you're exaggerating," Shoshi laughs, although Ima isn't laughing.

That evening, everyone goes around on tiptoes. They speak in hushed tones and only when necessary. They see the kallah's facial expression out of the corner of their eyes. But neither Abba or Ima take any pleasure in it . . . A fresh kallah in a bad mood? It tugs at their heartstrings. Shoshi goes into the bathroom to throw some cold water on her face. She tries to hide her mood. As she comes out, she smiles wanly.

The next day finds mother and daughter in Tsila's sheitel salon. A lot of people are also waiting their turns: mostly mother-and-daughter couples. The small room is crowded. An ancient fan is humming, but it only seems to stir up the hot, dusty air. Are there really strands of hair floating around the room, stabbing them in the face? Or are they just beads of perspiration?


A smattering of crumbs on the table. Two mugs of morning coffee. Abba's sandwich is already packed. One last sip. Only the coffee grounds remain. Shoshi appears.

"Abba! What are you doing here? It's already nine- fifteen!"

Abba stretches his legs out under the little table. "I know. I have a nine thirty appointment today."

"An appointment? During the kollel's morning seder?" Shoshi stares at him. And at Ima. "Don't you feel well, Abba?"

"I feel fine! Why would you think that?"

"Because you're never late to kollel and you never set up appointments during seder . . . and . . . I know! Abba, you must be sick and you're afraid to tell me. Tell me the truth, Abba; I'm a big girl now!" she finishes, with tears in her eyes.

"Really Shoshi!" Ima promises. "It's an important appointment that simply can't be put off. These things happen! Nothing we can do about it! But I can assure you that it has nothing to do with any illness!"

The kallah believes her parents, but her heart beats a trifle faster all morning.


Abba's heart is also racing this morning, for several reasons. First of all, he has to trudge up several flights of stairs. There's no elevator in this particular building, and the Schwartz family, of the Gemach for Chassanim, lives on the third floor.

Second of all, disconcerting thoughts keep disturbing his equilibrium. Who will agree to be the guarantors for the loan? And for how much? And when will he have to repay it?

But there's an additional, third reason.

When Shoshi's father gets to the third floor, the hall lights go out. He manages to make out the form of another person in a suit and hat. He fumbles for the light switch. The wall is plastered unevenly and chilly to the touch. He fumbles around again. His hand finds the switch and presses it. At that very moment he feels the presence of another person. He recoils for a second, and the light goes on.

"Uh, my mechutan!"

"Oh? Mechutan . . . Shoshi's father, uh, Shalom aleichem!"

"Uh, shalom aleichem. Good morning."

Shoshi's father is embarrassed. What an embarrassing predicament! He tries to smile, to . . . he simply doesn't know what to do. Davidi's father is a bit braver.

"How are you, mechutan? We turned on the light at the same time, didn't we?"

"Uh, yes, yes, you're right!" Shoshi's father tries so hard. The light goes out again! Silence reigns. This time, neither dares touch the switch.

Someone from the entrance floor must have pressed the light. The two future in-laws stand by the switch next to the Schwartz door. A makeshift, penciled sign is taped to the door: Gemach. Hours: 9-9:30 a.m. only.

"Nu, why don't you knock, mechutan?"

"No, please. You go ahead and be first, mechutan."

Someone who had climbed up to the third floor is panting heavily behind them . . . he reaches the Schwartz door and says, "Good morning. Who's the last one in line?"

"You are," the mechutonim answer in unison. The man wipes his brow and straightens his kippah.

"Oh, I see. You're together."

"That's right, we're together!" The ice was broken. The two mechutonim went in with their arms around each other.

Now is juggling-loans time for Abba, who suddenly has a wealth of information on gemachim and loan funds.

Shoshi comes into the kitchen. She makes herself some iced cocoa, oh how smooth and velvety, and drinks it in a tall glass with a straw. When all is said and done, she's happy — and the parents are no less happy! Davidi, the chosson, was the best thing that could have happened to them! Thanks to Hashem for His goodness! The cocoa is finished. The straw is just whistling at the bottom of the glass. Shoshi tacks another piece on paper onto the kitchen bulletin board. Then the phone rings.

"Oh, that's probably Ahuvi. She's going to go with me for my trial hairdo," Shoshi says, as she practically flies out of the room. Ima, who had amassed enough experience by then — dares to study the newest addition to the bulletin board.

Her face suddenly takes on a gray cast. Abba can't help but notice it. "You're totally exhausted, Ima. Why don't you have something to eat? Can I make you some toast?" Abba gets up and surreptitiously looks at the new note. He reads out,

"`Three: bedroom: beds, mattresses, a chest of drawers, wardrobes, a table and chairs. A kitchen table and chairs. Bookcases. A living room sofa??' Yes, there are two question marks next to the "sofa" entry. What can this mean?"

And then, Abba makes a little "X" next to the third row in his list of gemachim. His heart is already starting to beat faster, for who knows how many flights of stairs he will have to climb tomorrow and next week — and in the years to come.

And who know whom he'll meet in their halls.


Shoshi presses her face up against the store display window. Closed. How could she forget . . . Tuesday afternoon a lot of stores close. She can't see any furniture through the window. How annoying.

"So what should we do?" she asks Ima.

"I'm going to go finish some errands; you can go along home. Or whatever you want."

The two go their separate ways. The afternoon heat is overwhelming. The bus stop offers no shade as bus after bus passes Shoshi by. She heads for the nearest kiosk.

Her throat is parched. Oh, no; it's closed! It's so hot! And the next bus is due only in . . . she glances at her watch and this brings a smile to her face. It reminds her of her chosson and her engagement and all the lovely presents she received. The bus isn't due for at least another twenty minutes. In this heat.

She sits down on the bench. Oh, it's sweltering! She gets up in search of a bit of shade and finds herself in the entranceway of an apartment building. Number 45. Number 45? Wait a minute, isn't that's Doda Esther's building? Doda Esther — Abba's aunt!

Shoshi studies the names on the mailboxes. Here it is! "Isaac and Esther Stern."

Doda Esther wasn't at the engagement party. Maybe she didn't even know about it? Shoshi climbs up a few stairs and rings the bell. She hears an approaching, "just a minute" and then Doda Esther opens the door. At the same time, she opens her arms and her heart! "Shoshana!! Shoshi! Mazel tov! Mazel tov! What a surprise (hug). What a surprise!

"Come in maideleh, come in! Have a cold drink! It's so hot outside! Oy, Shosha'leh! I'm so glad to see you!"

Doda Esther disappears into the kitchen and returns with a tray laden with orange juice, cold water, cookies and little chocolate candies.

The two sit and chat. Shoshi has always been able to talk with Doda Esther. Surprisingly enough, the difference in their ages is no barrier. Doda Esther exudes youthful energy and has a sharp sense of humor. Her words of wisdom, her funny stories and memories, are as fresh and welcome as rolls hot out of the oven. She can keep Shoshi spellbound for hours.

When Doda Esther speaks, the lines on her face seem to disappear. The hoarseness in her voice seems to fade, too. Her listeners can vividly picture the people and events she describes.

"So what brings you here today, my child?" Doda Esther asks.

"Ima and I were going to the furniture store down the block. We forgot that they close on Tuesday afternoons."

"Lucky for me, you see? So, tell me, did you come to choose a `Shabbos table?'"

"Yes, along with another few shmattes," Shoshi says, chewing a vanilla cookie.

"How few?"

"Oh, not so many. Just a dining room table and chairs for Shabbos, a bedroom set — that is, a six-doored wardrobe, a chest of drawers, beds, mattresses — and . . . wait, there was something else. I know! A breakfront!"

"Nu, I must have rich relatives and I didn't even know it!" Doda Esther says.

"My father, the avreich, a rich man? Shoshi laughs as she picks up a piece of candy. "Maybe in the past, Doda Esther, it was accepted practice to buy a new young couple only a `Shabbos table.' But today, it's accepted practice to . . . to buy everything that I just mentioned. That's what everybody does."

"In my time, only one thing was `accepted practice.'"

"What was that," Shoshi asks, as the chocolate melts in her mouth.

"To live."

"To live? What do you mean?"

"Well, I mean to survive, to remain alive. As simple as it sounds. A challenge slightly more complex that the ones facing today's young couples, eh Shoshi?"

Shoshi listens. The candy suddenly sours in her mouth. Doda Esther was never the type to moralize. Not one to say, `Nu, what did I tell you? I knew that so-and-so would happen. Why didn't you listen to me?'

When Doda Esther would say, "Ay, the younger generation . . ." it was with both sympathy and appreciation.

"We had no furniture at all. The first piece of furniture I bought was a wedding present for Uncle Isaac, when he was young and full of life."

"What was it?"

"A shtender. It's still here." Two heads turned to look in the living room corner, near the bookcase. A simple, old- fashioned wooden shtender. Low and wide, and rundown. A newish gemora was lying on it.

"Isaac found an old folding picnic table, 60 by 60 centimeters. We painted it black and covered it with a napkin, instead of a tablecloth. It was good enough. And we were happy."

The elderly woman's eyes were as shiny as those of a newly married 20-year old bride. "But you know, Shoshi, we started off with much less than this."

"So you must have started out with nothing at all!"

"With nothing!" Doda Esther is taken aback. Quite taken aback. She's silent for a minute, and gazes at the young woman beside her with a strange expression on her face.

"Shoshi," she says suddenly. "I want to tell you something. Something that I've never told a living soul. Do you have a few minutes?"

"I have all afternoon," Shoshi says, folding her arms. Doda Esther takes off her apron and sinks into an easy chair.

"You know, Shoshi, that Dod Isaac and I became engaged on the night of Kristallnacht?"

"Really? I didn't know that."

"Yes. When we broke the plate, windows were being shattered all over Berlin. Isaac had papers allowing him to leave Germany for America. So valuable at the time. Imagine, your engagement night. You're excited, confused, very happy, but also very worried. The fear. You've taken one step towards the future — but what kind of future awaits you? No one knows. And then, you try to procure documents to let you leave the country, for you and your parents. And you are unsuccessful. And the two of you — a couple of nineteen- year- old kids — have to decide what to do. Isaac sailed off to the United States. We decided that once he was there, it would be easier for him to get visas for us and then we could join him. He would find work and a home . . . and that's how we parted."

Doda Esther's voice is barely audible.

"You said good-bye?" Shoshi is shocked. "But you might not have ever seen each other again!"

"That's how its was maideleh, but who knew then what life would bring? We had other dreams."

"Nu, so what really happened?" the kallah is spellbound with curiosity.

Oh, that was only the beginning," Doda Esther says, as she sinks deeper into her armchair and stirs up memories that haven't seen the light of day for years.


The port of New York. Unloading cargo. Loading cargo . . . huge crates. Lots of sweat. Too much. The beacon-holding Statue of Liberty watching over all ships entering the Port of New York is a frosty sentinel.

But you? You sweat. Overburdened by heat. Overburdened by work. Afraid that your employer — the short guy over there with the white straw hat, the moustache and the cane — will point to you and yell, "Hey, you there! You can go home" — in other words, "you're fired."

And with the same stroke of his cane he can point to another "Hey, you!" — usually a Negro, who will promptly come to take your place. That's how it is. With no explanations whatsoever. And you have no choice. In the meantime, stevedore is the only job available in New York for someone who wants to keep Shabbos.

So you work and you sweat. And work and sweat some more. And it's not easy to be a stevedore. It's not easy to carry the baggage and trunks and suitcases of the thousands of immigrants spilled from the ships onto the piers of Ellis Island. And in your heart you are carrying another, hefty piece of baggage. The knowledge that you left a young woman behind. Your fiancee. Promises. Dreams.

Sweat drips like tears down your face, but there's no time to even breathe, much less to think. Definitely no time to cry. You pick up her latest letter. It seems as heavy as the Statue of Liberty.

A few words in her fine handwriting. Simple words. "Isaac," his fiancee writes, "we have moved to . . . " The location is crossed out by the censor with a stroke of the pen. "Send your letters to Steigel, the attorney. I'm sure you remember his address. Awaiting you, Esther."

That's it.

His heart races like mad. The letter is dated two months ago, and it just came this morning!

For three months he sends letters and waits, but still there is no answer. In the meantime, rumors reach the shores of New York City. Wrapped in thin cellophane paper marked "Caution! Fragile!" in red and black. Strange rumors. Rumors that you are incapable of believing. You're afraid to ask the European refugees any questions.

Isaac hauls suitcases. Carries luggage. He follows a young Jewish couple. The woman is holding a sleeping baby.

"Do you know where Hester Street is?" the man asks in Yiddish. He produces a piece of paper from his shabby overcoat — a coat so inappropriate for the New York heat.

"I do," says Isaac, in a sad voice. At least they're together! "It's downtown. On the Lower East Side."

The man looks lost. His wife looks just as lost as he is. Hush, little baby. Go to sleep.

But at least . . . Isaac thinks dejectedly, at least they're together! Sure, it will be hard for them in the beginning. No work. Impossible to find a place to live. The language . . . Everything . . . . but at least they have each other. And me? I sit and wait for letters. His heart is shattered by loneliness and fear.

Every morning when he goes out to the hall to the communal bathroom on his floor, he meets his neighbor, Mr. Holly.

Isaac hears the sounds of his radio from his apartment.

"Did you hear?" he asks whoever is in line in front of him, and yawns.

"Europe is heating up. It's lively over there. That little guy with the cigar, that Englishman, Churchill, is talking about, `Blood, sweat and tears.' You heard?"

"And what about the Jews?" Isaac asks.

"They don't mention the Jews on the radio. Only in the shtieblach," the neighbor says, as he yawns, leaning against the corridor wall in his grayish undershirt. His hair is shiny with Brilliantine, New York-style. He's smoking, his nose buried in the Saturday Evening Post. Sweating like a typical New Yorker.

Isaac sends more letters. He gets no replies. In the pre-dawn hours, when the city is still covered with a blanket of gray, he checks his mailbox . . . and mails still another letter. He's got to get going. He can't be late for work. It's against the law to be late in New York. Although he is of infinite value, time is money. So says his employer. At the port, they call him, "Boss."

"I've sent visas for both you and your parents! Answer me!" But she doesn't answer. He writes again. And again. No reply. And the waves of rumors hit New York.

When he dares to ask the arriving refugees in cryptic language, they don't answer. Or else they give him a look that says, "Tell me, young fellow, are you crazy? Or just innocent?"

After a while he stops asking. He just loads cargo and unloads cargo. Works and sweats and suffers.

Sometimes when he is physically weak from worry, he tries to think logically: Mail never operates efficiently during wartime. It's to be expected.

And back home? Surely they are safe. They live in Berlin. The front is far away from there. In Europe's back yard. He really, really has nothing to worry about.

But he does worry. He can't fall asleep at night. He can't eat. The boss notices already and points at him with his cane,.

"A weakling like you? How do the Jews say? Shmattes!" he explodes with laughter under his white hat.


Summer is followed by autumn. Isaac keeps sending letters. Winter brings more ships to the port. He has visas for them. Everything is set up. Welcome to America.

The gray city dons a layer of snow. White as a wedding gown. No word from Isaac-the-stevedore's fiancee. Nothing from any of his relatives.

Isaac learns to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.

A delicate yeshiva bochur disguised as a simple stevedore. Broad-shouldered. In faded blue overalls. He learned to shout, "One, two, three," as he hoists crates the size of a piano. He learns to ignore the coarse language of the other stevedores. He doesn't even blush anymore. He drinks Coca Cola and eats bagels with lox like a real American.

He learns to repress his yearning.

One morning, Isaac finds three letters in his mailbox! Three! Excitedly, he looks at the return address His hands are shaking. As if the letters weighed three tons. But . . .

These are letters that he, himself, had sent. Marked, "Return to Sender — Addressee Unknown," by the United States Postal Service.

That day at work, he keeps dropping crates. He trips while carrying a suitcase. The Boss notices, and points his cane at him.

"Hey, you there. Shmattes! What's wrong with you today? Are you all right?" The Boss comes up to him. What a surprise. Taps him on the shoulder. "You don't feel good today, Shmattes? Go home. Get some rest and come back tomorrow."

Although Isaac mutters something in broken English, the Boss nudges him gently, and says, "Leave, go home. Tomorrow will be another day."

Isaac's eyes fill with tears. He leaves. But he doesn't go home. And surely not to sleep. He walks the streets of Manhattan in a stupor. Until he finds himself in a little beis medrash. It's empty. Everyone's at work. A dusty smell pervades the dimly-lit room.

But there's his shtender, in the corner. He runs toward it like a man running towards a dear one just emerging from the bowels of a ship. He leans his aching, muscular arms on it, along with his Jewish neshomoh. As he pores over the gemora, the tears flow freely.


"Shmattes! Good morning! How do you feel today??"

"Thank G-d. Thank you for asking. I'm fine," the stevedore tries to smile.

"The work won't be particularly hard today," the Boss consoles him. "There isn't any heavy cargo. Just suitcases. Only immigrants. Ships from Italy and Spain."

"Ah . . ." The stevedore's eyes look hollow, sad.

"Hey, Shmattes! What's this new `shtick' of yours?" The Boss's cane taps his shoulder in a friendly way. "Today you look like an empty suitcase. Come on! Don't be such a sourpuss. What is it you Jews say? I know, nebech. You have a job and you're in the United States of America, not in that . . . that trash heap over here they call Europe. So get moving!" he concludes with a light tap of the cane.

"Get moving, Shmattes! Smile!"

The stevedore's expression remains unchanged.

"Nu! Smile! And may it be for gezundheit! Did I say it right?"

The Boss' previous cold demeanor melts and Isaac produces a smile, but the baggage in his heart was too heavy to bear. And he had no one to help him carry it.


A ship has docked! A swarm of humanity on the pier. Isaac shades his eyes. The Manhattan sun has suddenly blinded him. The water, the horizon and the skyscrapers form a golden haze. Perhaps this is the source of the myth that there's gold in the streets of America.

He notices a group of people wrapped in talleisim. There are always Jews on these ships, but . . . no, there's no possible chance. She could never be on a ship coming from Italy or Spain. And the last ship to leave Germany was a long time ago. At least a year, or a year-and-a-half ago. And how long has he been in America? Maybe longer?

"Shmattes! Nu!Get moving!" The Boss yells and whistles in a blend of languages. The crew of stevedores is an international one: Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Chinamen, Jews. Well, one Jew. Only one. Isaac "Shmattes." A yeshiva bochur who chooses to do this backbreaking labor in the company of burly toughs. In order to keep Shabbos.

You can do anything in America! "America is the land of unlimited opportunity." That's what they say. But Shabbos? To keep Shabbos? In New York? Nu, don't be ridiculous! How do the Jews put it? It's simply chutzpah. Jewish chutzpah, of course.

Isaac rushes over to the pier. The ship empties out its human cargo. Swarms and swarms of people keep coming out. Their meager belongings in their hands. Men and women. Their clothing is tattered. Totally unsuitable to the New York weather. They shiver.

The stevedore's eyes scan the crowd. No children today. No elderly people, either. Strange. But that means he won't have to work too hard. Younger people usually manage with their own light hand luggage. Just a small suitcase, or a handbag. Maybe another bundle. That's it. They all look pale. With deep-set eyes and uncombed hair.

The immigration authorities do their job. They direct the people to the correct line; take their particulars, check them. Have them sign papers. The stevedores run around, joking amongst themselves, shouting, whistling, dragging luggage behind them.

Isaac is downtrodden. This morning, when he went out to the hall, he met his neighbor, Mr. Holly.

"I have a mazel tov. Today is my birthday. The seventeenth of November! I'm sixty today!"

Isaac pales. November 17th? Today — today was supposed to be his wedding day! When they registered for their marriage, the German clerk said out loud: "November 17, 1941."

"Hey, what's the matter, son?" Mr. Holly asks. "You're as pale as snow!"

"I'm all right," Isaac whispers, leaning against the corridor wall. Sweat suddenly drips down his forehead.

"Looks to me like you're not okay," the neighbor says. "Come in and throw some cold water on your face."

Isaac goes in and rinses his face and then runs to work. The chasm in his heart just deepened.

"Hey, porter," somebody whistles. "Over here!" And he runs, hoists, sweats, lifts, drags, in all directions. A taxi is waiting with its motor on. The trunk is open. He loads it and slams the door and runs in another direction. A whistle. "Hey, porter!" Another whistle. "Porter, over here!"

In Italian, Spanish, English and Yiddish.

His blue overalls are stained with sweat. His arms ache from the never-ending backbreaking work. More and more passengers emerge from the bowels of the ship. Long lines form in front of the immigration authorities. They check your papers, sign them, and then — get going! Welcome to the United States of America! You're welcome to manage on your own.

A pair of suitcases in the corner of the pier. He searches for their owner. Runs back and forth, wipes the sweat from his brow with a grimy rag from his pocket.

A delicate voice calls out to him, "Porter? Please, can you . . . ." In Yiddish. And the voice. Something. The grimy rag leaves a black mark across his forehead. Each heartbeat now seems agonizing.

He stops. Turns toward the voice. He can hardly breathe. It's her! An old lady is sitting next to her on a suitcase. Could that be her mother? His mother-in-law? Ribono shel Olam!

He doesn't know where to look. He clasps his calloused hands. She asks for help again. Maybe the porter doesn't understand Yiddish. Why should he? They're all goyim here. But . . . just a second. She becomes frantic. She looks at the porter with a piercing glance.

All of a sudden the port is silent. They hear nothing. Her trembling hand slowly touches her neck, then her mouth, and reaches her forehead.

"Isaac?" she asks in a whisper. "Am I hallucinating?"

"It's you."

"It's me."

An eternity of silence surrounds them. The ocean is frozen. And then the old woman gets up from her suitcase, spreading her arms as if they are wings.

"Isaac Stern? Oy! Ribono Shel Olam! It's Isaac Stern! My son-in-law! Oy!" Suddenly her shoulders sag and she falls to the ground.

The Boss arrives. Water! Water! Everything's okay! She didn't faint! It's okay! It's just the excitement. Happens a lot when people arrive in the Land of the Free!

"We're used to it! No, everyone back to work! Get moving, Shmattes . . . " as the Boss moves on.

But they're still standing there, in silence.

"Today . . . you know . . . the exact date."

She didn't know. How could she? They haven't kept track of the calendar for so long.

"You didn't answer my letters?" his face with a strange expression.

"You sent letters?"


"Forty-five letters? I didn't get any."

"And the visas that I sent?"

"No. I didn't get anything from you."

"But you're here. With your mother. How?"

"I don't know. Maybe through Steigel, the attorney. Or through the Joint. I don't know."

"And everybody? Your brother, your sisters, your father? Where is everyone?"

Esther lowers her head.

The port is silent and screaming at the same time. Then silent once again.

"Have you heard anything from my parents? From . . . "

The port screams in silence. The entire city of New York is silent. The forty-eight United States are mute at this moment.

He understands everything and understands nothing. But they are here now, the two of them. A small island in the midst of people running around the sea of humanity. Suddenly he hesitates.

"Esther. You know, I have nothing. I haven't managed to . . . Nothing. This is all I have." He turns his empty overall pockets inside out. Spreads his hands out to the side.

"That's all right," she answers. "That's fine. I have everything."

"Everything?" He is astounded. She sure doesn't look like someone who has everything. It's more likely that she also has nothing.

"Everything? What do you have? Where is it?"

"Everything I have is right here," she answers.

"Here?" Isaac looks at the battered suitcases between them.


"Here, right here." And she looks him straight in the eye. "Everything I have is right here."

He understands. Oh yes, he understands. And he stands there, the sweat-stained, broad-shouldered stevedore, and cries.

Doda Esther stops talking for a minute. She takes a sip of orange juice. Shoshi wipes away tears.

"Well, we didn't get married that day, but the wedding was two weeks later. We lived in his tiny apartment. With Ima. We just added two more suitcases. We really had nothing. We managed. We got a few shmattes and we were happy. We were happy! We had nothing, but we had everything. You understand, Shoshi?

"For our first anniversary, I bought Isaac the shtender. That same shtender, from the Lower East Side. When the congregation moved to a new building they sold the old furniture for almost nothing. The shtender cost me three dollars and twenty-five cents. It's still here. Isaac still uses it for learning."

Shoshi gets up from the sofa and goes to the shtender. She touches it. She tries to imagine Dod Isaac in blue overalls, leaning upon it, crying from worry and loneliness . . . what a heart-rending story!

Doda Esther glances at the clock on the wall. Oy! She has to get moving, to heat up Dod Isaac's chicken soup. He'll be coming any minute!

"Come to the kitchen, maideleh. You haven't had Doda Esther's soup for ages!"

"What a story, Doda Esther. How did it end?"

"How did it end? Nu, you tell me! You know the ending! Our children — you, Shoshi, and all your siblings, and your chosson — are the end of the story. Many Torah-true homes grew from our `nothing.' Doros yeshorim! Could the story possibly have a happier ending?"


Shoshi heads home.

The air has cooled off. She thinks, as she walks home. A little fresh air is good for the neshomoh.

She meets Abba at the entrance to her building, waiting for the elevator. Studying a little note pad.

"Ah, Shoshi!" he looks up, closes the note pad and shoves it into his pocket.

"Shalom, Abba. Still busy with your lists, I see."

"May we always be busy with happy occasions!" he answers. The elevator arrives. They go up and enter their apartment.

Shoshi turns on the kitchen light. Pours herself a glass of cold water. Ima isn't back yet. Abba goes into his study.

Later, when he and Ima come into the kitchen for their evening cup of coffee, they probably won't notice that there, on the cork board, near the electric and gas bills, there aren't any lists.

Just one piece of paper, a new one, with the following:

"Ask Davidi about ordering a shtender. Don't forget!"


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