A short story by Tamar Hodes.
The winter of 1876 was cruel, even by Lithuanian standards. Citizens and animals were numb with cold; foliage was edged in frost; the soil froze. My great-grandfather was a woodcutter in the Algirdas forest where firs stood like giants’ legs against a vanilla sky. All day, he chopped trees with his axe. As dusk fell, he walked slowly home, carrying the leftover woodchips to make fires for Rebecca and himself.
They shared the long, dark evenings, watching the flames dance in the grate. Samuel described the animals and birds he had seen and Rebecca gave her news, the potato latkes she had cooked, the visit from Frieda in their village and the honey cake she’d brought. The couple enjoyed each other’s company, their dark eyes shining, smiles stretching and fading in unison. There was plenty to make them happy.
But there was more than enough to sadden them, too. They had been married for nine years and Rebecca had still not conceived. This not only pained them, but also their families, who waited patiently at first, then with increasing anxiety, as the years passed. All around them, women fell pregnant and children filled the village with their sweet faces. At times, it seemed that every bird and animal was producing offspring. The hens hatched chicks, the sheep had lambs, their sisters’ and brothers’ families frequently increased in number. But for Samuel and Rebecca, their lovemaking remained sterile.
At first, this misfortune did nothing to diminish their love. They would climb eagerly into their soft-eiderdowned bed, enjoying their love-making, feeling hopeful. But after a while changed and Rebecca began to dread it. As her husband rolled over towards her, her heart froze. What was the point of their barren efforts?
This was a source of misery to them. Not only did they want to cradle milky babies in their arms, but also they knew that they were involuntarily disobeying the first commandment in Genesis 1:28 – ‘Pru u’r’vu – Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’.
In their different ways, Samuel and Rebecca were equally committed Jews. Judaism determined Rebecca’s cooking, philosophy, the songs she sang, her everyday life. For Samuel, it manifested itself in his love of learning. He was a self-taught scholar, using every spare moment to read the Torah and the Talmud with enthusiasm, encouraged in his studies by Rabbi Schneur Mendel. In the evenings, while Rebecca darned socks and sang Yiddish folksongs in front of the fire, Samuel studied a chosen part of the Torah and the corresponding commentary in the Talmud.
‘I use my hands in the day, my mind in the evenings,’ he said.
And Rebecca admired him for it. But how deeply it hurt them that against their will, they were disobeying God.
And so, year after year, Rebecca witnessed her monthly bleeding with disappointment, and the look on her face as Samuel returned from the forest rendered words unnecessary. On those days, they ate in silence, the bleak reality of their situation chilling their bodies despite the ever-constant heat of the fire.
Why does God not help us? Rebecca questioned. She didn’t speak her doubts out loud, for it would have angered Samuel. He believed deeply that everything was God’s will.
Apart from these hollow meals, however, they usually enjoyed their food and it provided them with comfort. Samuel’s favourite meal was on shabbat. He finished work early to be home before the sunset striped the sky lemon and crimson and struck the tree-trunks gold. On these evenings, Rebecca covered the table with a white starched cloth. There was a challah flanked by the Sabbath candles, in front of which she sang the brachot. They drank sweet kiddush wine and Samuel said the blessing. But no amount of praying or love from Samuel’s family and her own altered the situation.
Sometimes, they would go to the homes of family members, all of whom lived in the village, by the edge of the forest. It watched over them, it was said, like a lion protecting them from evil. At other times it was Samuel and Rebecca’s turn to play host and hostess.
One shabbat, when Samuel and Rebecca were particularly despondent about their situation, it was their turn to welcome their families.
‘Shabbat shalom,’ said Samuel, determined to be cheerful, opening the front door wide, his arms welcoming them into their home.
The visitors stood around the table while Rebecca sang the bracha over the candles. Then Samuel said the blessing over the kiddush wine. Rebecca noticed that as he filled the guests’ glasses, his hand was clutched tightly around the neck of the bottle. His veins stiffened and it chilled her to see this. The Samuel she had known as a young man had been gentle but recently there was anger within him. After a few seconds, he released his hand and she saw his fingerprints on the wet glass. She was shocked by this and when the time came for her to serve the food, her hands were trembling.
Fourteen of them crowded around the table, laughing and eating. Tonight, Rebecca’s sister Sarah had brought along her baby girl whom she bounced on her knee all evening. Rebecca could hardly bear to watch.
She was tired, too. She had been boiling beetroot for the borscht all day; the room smelt bitter-sweet, the purple soup staining the lips and chins of the children. Rebecca served gefilte fish. Her neighbour gave her carp from his stream and it was Samuel’s favourite. Vegetables gleamed in the light and Rebecca tried to take comfort from them and from their families. Rebecca and Samuel’s eyes met across the room and his smiles aimed to reassure her. How he loved her – an ideal wife, a potentially ideal mother.
The guests left in the early hours of the morning, the sleeping children wrapped in blankets and carried in their fathers’ arms. Rebecca and Samuel closed the door, knowing that as the families walked home, they would undoubtedly be shaking their heads and muttering,
‘Still no news. How sad…’
The next morning, they met again in synagogue. The family thanked Samuel and Rebecca for their hospitality.
‘I think your gefilte fish last night was your best ever,’ said Rebecca’s mother, warmly. But on recalling it, Rebecca felt bile enter her mouth. Even food was becoming distasteful to her.
‘Thank you, Mother,’ she replied, looking down.
Samuel’s family embraced them both, his kind parents hugging them as if trying to transfer hope to them.
As they entered the plain white building, Rabbi Mendel greeted them.
‘Samuel, Rebecca, shabbat shalom.’
‘Shabbat shalom, Rabbi,’ they answered. Normally they passed through, Rebecca to sit with the women upstairs behind a thin screen, Samuel with the other men downstairs. But today was different.
‘Please,’ said the rabbi, ‘may I come and see you at home on Wednesday evening?’
Samuel nodded. ‘Oh, Rabbi, you have another piece of text to recommend to me? How I enjoyed last week’s reading -’
‘No, Samuel,’ continued the rabbi. ‘This isn’t about studying. I’d like to speak to you both.’
All through the service, Rebecca’s heart pounded. Even her favourite song, Ma Tovu, gave no comfort and she could barely sing. Samuel, too, felt sick. As the Torah was processed around the shul, he bowed dutifully, but his heart was numb. He and Rebecca knew what the rabbi wanted to say to them, but they were too scared to admit it to themselves, or later, to each other.
Four days passed where Samuel and Rebecca barely spoke. To acknowledge what they both knew was coming was to make it real. The rabbi arrived as they finished their meal. The couple welcomed him into their home, Rebecca took his coat and they drew near to the fire, as if they needed its warmth. The couple listened carefully to the wise, bearded man.
‘Samuel, Rebecca,’ Rabbi Mendel tried to look cheerful but it was obvious that he, too, dreaded his own words. ‘You’ll have been married ten years in July. I remember your wedding well and was so proud to join you.’
As he spoke, they all remembered the beautiful wedding beneath the chupah, in the forest. Rebecca had worn a white gown and, after the ceremony, the men had lifted Samuel and Rebecca on chairs and danced around them. It had been so joyous, the wine, the flowers, the scent of the evergreens, the hope.
‘But,’ he continued, ‘you know what the Bible says, Pru u’r’vu . You also know that Judaism allows divorce on the grounds of failure to have children. For it says in Deuteronomy chapter 24, verse 1: ‘ When a man marries a woman in whom, after a time, he is displeased because he has discovered something unseemly about her, he may write a document of divorce and give it to her.’
I must put it to you that as your marriage, sadly, has produced no children, it is time to find new spouses so that you may bear children.’
Samuel and Rebecca knew that this was normal Jewish practice and that the rabbi’s words were as inevitable as the harsh, recurring winters.
‘I understand how painful this must be. I’ll give you time to think about what I’ve said and will come and see you again next week.’
He closed the cottage door quietly behind him.
The following seven days felt numb to the couple. Samuel continued to cut wood in the forest but he sensed nothing, not even the sound of the axe as it split wood. Rebecca, too, had become desensitised. She cooked the same meals as usual, but without joy. She didn’t bother to flavour her food. It seemed unimportant.
They awaited, with dread, the rabbi’s next visit.
He arrived on Wednesday evening, once again as they finished their meal.
‘Have you considered what I said to you?’ he asked, drawing up a wooden seat to the fire and gazing into its huge flames, hoping to find strength there but he was disappointed. The fire seemed feeble and gave out little heat.
‘We have, Rabbi,’ replied Samuel. He avoided Mendel’s eyes, as if he were ashamed of his predicament. ‘We know you have spoken wisely and we take your advice.’
Rebecca smoothed a hand over her apron. Something inside her twisted and hardened towards the two men. They obeyed the law without question and she couldn’t respect them for it. She doubted her faith for the first time in her life. The songs which she had sung as a child stuck in her throat. She had found it impossible to pray since the previous visit. Her world had been drained of colour. Was it right of religion to put obedience before love? Was it their fault that they couldn’t reproduce? Was it fair for them to be punished?
As the rabbi spoke, Samuel nodded his head in acquiescence. Rebecca hated them for their compliance, for not allowing her to speak, for not being angry or defiant. She wanted with all her heart to be a good Jewess, but why was the religion which she had served so faithfully now rejecting her? She looked to her husband for comfort.
Love for him flooded her, his dark hair and large, veined hands so familiar to her. They had known each other since childhood, playing together at Purim celebrations, visiting each other’s houses. Later, they had walked slowly by the stream in springtime, pointing out the new leaves which had sprouted or glimpsing a pale sun in the marbled sky. How happy Rebecca had been when her father told her that she and Samuel were to be married. And what a good husband he had been, caring for her, bringing wood home to keep her warm with.
The two men suddenly stood up and her reverie was broken.
‘Yes,’ said Samuel. ‘There’s no alternative. Rebecca and I must remarry and be fruitful.’
The rabbi turned to go. Rebecca stared hard at the fire, her cold blue eyes confronting the blaze and avoiding the men’s faces.
During the following weeks, new spouses were sought for them. It was easy finding a husband for Rebecca. Abraham, the farm worker who cared for the chickens, was widowed and had three boys. He was a good man and needed a mother for his children and a wife to run his home.
Choosing a spouse for Samuel was more difficult. Most of the women in the village were either married already or too old for childbearing. So the rabbi decided on Miriam, the chassan’s daughter. She was eighteen, a good age for marriage and motherhood. Although she was fourteen years Samuel’s junior, this didn’t concern the rabbi. His priority was to ensure that the Jewish community flourished.
It was arranged. Two fathers gave their consent, two weddings were planned and two new families would hopefully result.
Samuel and Miriam were joined in the village shul with great merriment. Samuel crushed the glass with his foot in one stamp, which everyone interpreted hopefully. Surely in this union he would become a father, they thought. And they were right. During the next fifteen years, Samuel and Miriam had thirteen children. Samuel continued to study the Torah and became such a fine scholar that Rabbi Mendel often asked him to assist in services. Samuel was content with Miriam. As in his first marriage, he brought home wood from the forest and made fires to keep his wife warm. They lived in the house he had once shared with Rebecca. But now the home rang with the sound of children laughing and singing. Samuel had to build another table so that there would be room for them all on shabbat, and Miriam would cook borscht and gefilte fish for she knew them to be Samuel’s favourites. He would look at the gleaming faces of his children and he knew that the rabbi had behaved correctly.
Rebecca and Abraham had four children – three girls and a boy. Rebecca loved the farm and her children. Abraham was kind to her and she was a good wife, as she had been to Samuel. In the evenings, once the children were asleep, she would sew. She rediscovered her faith. God had allowed her, after all, to be a mother. She could once again sing the songs that she had so loved as a girl.
They all lived in the same village and went to the shul. Rabbi Mendel was pleased to see them on shabbat, the new spouses, the rosy-cheeked children. But despite this particular local triumph, all was not well outside their community. News filtered through of pogroms and vicious attacks. The authorities treated looting of Jewish quarters casually and often only intervened on the third day of trouble. The tsarist regime imposed more and more restrictions on Jews and then blamed the victims, as if they were in some way responsible for their suffering. In 1882, the government passed rules forbidding Jews to settle outside towns and hamlets and to carry out business on Sundays or Christian holidays. Seven years later, a decree restricted the admission of Jewish lawyers to the bar.
In response, many Jews began to emigrate. They were sad to leave, but felt their situation was dire. They were particularly concerned for their children whose futures looked bleak. It was difficult for them to be accepted in universities and they were constantly being discriminated against.
Samuel and Miriam, Rebecca and Abraham, like so many others, let their children go. They left in pairs, for moral support. Some went to Hamburg, some to Dublin; others to Liverpool from where they could be shipped to the States. Some went to South Africa where gold mining was developing. Samuel and Miriam considered following their children overseas. But some Jews saw the accession of Nicholas II as a sign of a better future. Samuel was one such optimist, believing that life was improving. Even the steep escalation of violence in the pogroms between 1903 and 1906 failed to diminish his hope. Jews were being accepted more in the fields of commerce and industry and some were being elected into positions of power.
‘My forest and my community are dear to me,’ argued Samuel. ‘This is where I belong.’
He missed his children. All those years of trying to have a family and now he had lost them. At least he knew that all had arrived safely in their new countries: each pair had written to tell him so. But there was one mystery. His two eldest sons, who went to America, sent word of their arrival but were never heard of again.
Abraham and Rebecca, likewise, had to watch the children they had loved, leaving. As each waved goodbye, Rebecca felt her heart rip, tears bouncing off her face.
One Saturday, some years later, Samuel – now in his sixties – sat quietly in shul. It was run down, no longer the gleaming white building it had previously been. The Jewish community had diminished and most members were elderly. Mendel, himself, was an old man now, back bent and face drawn but he tried to maintain a cheerful atmosphere, not easy with a small choir made up of old men with hoarse voices.
Samuel followed the service diligently. He had retained his deep belief but had found, in recent years that his concentration sometimes waned, his mind wandering to thoughts of his absent children. During one such lapse, Samuel noticed Rebecca entering the synagogue, going upstairs to take her seat behind the screen with the other women. She seemed frail now, her hair greying and thinner than before, her walk laboured. Yet there was still something beautiful about her. He couldn’t identify what he felt for her – was it love?
Rebecca, my dear, what has it all been for, he wondered. But he forced his eyes away from her and back to the sacred words of his beloved siddur.
Tamar, a lovely and sensitive story of love and a lament for a life familiar to us in some ways, but so different from ours today. Thanks.