Amol iz givayn a mayse. Once there was a story, about a woman whose name I was given the day I was born.
Her name was Sara, and her face wasn’t pretty, that she knew, from each wry glance in the looking glass over the dresser in the room she grew up in, but her hair – oh her hair. Like a waterfall at night tumbling over her strong shoulders, cascading to that sweet dip where her spine ends. Some say this is why Sara refused to marry – so she wouldn’t have to cover it as was the custom in their shtetl.
Now, her sister was the pretty one. Even with her brown hair tucked away beneath a sheitel, seen only by her husband. And she was young, too, when she stuck her finger out beneath the wedding canopy and was married. Miriam was the sweet one, younger by three years, dimpled like a powdered pastry with pink mouth and soft breasts and a pliant waist, and look, already her own sweet little girl born two Springs ago.
Early marriages, and bellies swelling within three moons of the wedding night were also the custom of their shtetl.
And such a shtetl it was – in the crook of a riverbend, one synagogue with a stained glass window, in the center of town, a wink and a nod at the grandeur of Lodz, nearest big city while the rest of the buildings listed one on top of the other, all the same. There were vegetable gardens, and two milk cows that fed the the three dozen families that lived nestled in the village space.
There were always chickens milling about, hens pecking, the occasional rooster strutting through the center of the square, but not even the birds were a match for the yentas who would squawk and bustle about on market day, pinching the cheeks of the young maidens, sometimes even pulling their hair like a skein of silk (or yarn, depending), measuring, comparing, thinking of their young sons, and dowries.
The butcher’s cleaver thwak thwak thwak against the chopping block. The milkman cursing as he spills a full bucket on his way through town. The wise men, the fools, laughing, bickering, shouting, weeping.
And so it went.
And the shtetl was too small for Sara. She was different. She was tall and broad and flat, same as the washboard her mother once used down by the river to clean their clothes before Sabbath. Her eyes were black like river rocks, same as her mother, her lashes thin and pale at the ends, and her thin lips stretched easily into a radiant smile over straight white teeth. Other girls in the shtetl would cover their mouths when they laughed, but Sara would smile with all her teeth showing because like her hair, it was the only other thing that made her beautiful.
When she was still her mother’s little girl, her mother taught her how to scale fish, and she was quick with the knife, the scales falling like silver dust to the floor. Her mother taught her how to knead dough, she would punch and pull and bend and stretch the flour, water, eggs and yeast, she’d add salt, roll her knuckles over the dough. She’d sit and watch it rise. Her mother taught her how to polish glass until it shone, and every Friday before Sabbath, Sara would watch her mother polish the kiddush cup she had given her father before they stood beneath the wedding canopy and were married.
Sara was not allowed to touch it.
But one afternoon after 7 birthdays, when her mother wasn’t looking, she stood on the balls of her feet, reached up to the ledge where the glass would rest when it wasn’t on the Sabbath table, she brushed the side with her small, blunt fingers.
Sara was always in motion, even when she’d sit, and when her fingers touched the kiddush cup, she knocked it off, off the ledge, and it landed on the cold, hard floor.
A tiny piece, no bigger than three grains of sand dislodged from the lip of the cup, small enough where it could still be a secret, but Sara began to cry as she picked up the glass that she was forbidden to touch.
When her mother saw what she had done, her black eyes flashed, and she drew her hand back to strike her daughter, but when she stopped long enough to look at her daughter’s eyes, wide and shining, she folded over on her first born child and held her close.
“This cup,” she explained, “ is more than just a cup. It’s survived so many years across wide mountains, when my own mother carried it all the way to the shtetl where she married my father, where I was born. And the night the bad men came and destroyed our homes, I was hidden beneath a tree and this cup was wrapped in my father’s prayer shawl with me. I remember looking up through the branches, the stars looked like glass shards through my wet eyelashes, and in that cold, cold night, and I knew that the universe I knew had broken. The kiddush cup survived. And so did I. But no one else did.”
“Did you cry, Mama?”
“Yes. But I never looked back.”
“I refused to be like Lot’s wife, and turn to a pillar of salt. So when the sky went from purple deep to blush, and when all that was left of my shtetl a pillar of smoke, I crawled out from underneath that rotten tree and kept walking.”
Later on that day, her mother showed Sara the prayer shawl she kept beneath the feathered mattress of her marriage bed.
It was torn in places, but beautiful, still, the embroidery light blue against the white cloth, the blue bands of sea, or of sky.
“I never looked back,” her mother said in a whisper.
This was the beginning of understanding for Sara — that the world was bigger than their shtetl.
And Sara liked beginnings. Dough rising on the windowsill, the first buds of Spring that grew into small green apples, and the dawn in a sweet wash across the sky.
And she hated endings. Like the last line of a story. Or the last note falling from the fiddle at a joyous occasion. Or her mother’s last breath on a stark, cold night of shattered stars, at the end of such long waiting. Sara sat beside her on the bed she had been born in 8 years before, her mother’s hand like the roots of the apple tree outside the window withered in winter, the veins thrumming slowly, each breath its own universe of expectation and exhaustion. The spaces between each breath stretched into the longest night Sara had ever known. She counted the seconds, then the minutes, until there was nothing left to count except the days that began when her mother stopped, the days that stretched through the week of mourning, and then the first 30 days, and into the full year, four seasons, gone.
Each sabbath, Sara polished the kiddush cup as her mother would have done, each day for a year, she kneaded the dough and lit the candles.
But she was fading.
And her father watched her through his tears, his oldest child, who held the spirit of her mother in her eyes.
He was the rabbi, who had come all the way from Lodz, different from the other fathers, and different from even the other scholars who would learn with him in the hader. He had seen the ocean once, and not just in a dream.
And while his first born disappeared into the year after her mother died, he pulled her back with books, with texts in a world where girls didn’t learn such things.
“A beautiful mind is a pity to waste” he would say to her as they bent low over texts in Hebrew, in Yiddish by candlelight while her sister brought a glass of tea for both.
Miriam would linger by the table, until Sara and her father drew close around the texts, their shadows on the wall as one, and Miriam would leave.
“A father must teach his son to swim,” they read together in the Talmud, and so into the river she went on the first day of Spring. Thrashing at first, her body rigid, her breath trapped between her lips and her lungs, she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t move until her father held her in the water with two fingers, as she lay on her back and swayed in the gentle rocking.
“Look up,” her father said as he pointed to a white cloud overhead. “Do you see the swan? Float like her.”
And Sara did.
“Over there,” her father said. Do you see the lake trout? The big one over there? Move like him.”
And Sara did.
So, she grew up strange – a branch bending beneath sweet buds, thorns in between, moving, twisting opposite the others, the only girl who could swim, the only girl who could read not just in Yiddish, but in Hebrew, too, the only girl — now a woman — who wore her hair uncovered and had the first traces of wrinkles around her eyes.
But then, the rumors:
What’s wrong with the Rabbi’s daughter? Sure, she’s no beauty like her sister, but there isn’t anything physically wrong with her, so what IS wrong with her? Why won’t anyone marry her? Nu, is she too proud, to defiant?
Rumors, like flurries of snow, transient but stinging. They would melt away, until the next gust. And yet, they gave her resolve to be herself, stuck in the shtetl, she felt no purpose as she measured out her life in scaling fish and rising bread. She would rather read, and argue, and climb apple trees, even as soft webs at the ends of her eyes, even as her younger sister grew big with her second child.
A little bird built its nest beside her heart and beat its wings.
And then it happened. Her father’s cousin, a book merchant in Lodz with a natty black beard, and restless eyes, and a wife who wore her hair uncovered in golden plaits, were passing through with their three children on the way to Trieste, where they would board a ship that would take them to Jaffa Port far, far away on the distant shores of Eretz Yisrael.
“We will settle in Jerusalem,” Reb Meyer said. “A return from exile, after so many years from generation to generation we are weary.”
They studied her, Reb Meyer and his wife, these relatives from the city, they studied her restless fingers that would rub the pages of a book while she would read, they studied her taut arms as she would knead the challah dough, they studied her eyes that always seemed to search beyond four walls, beyond the window and the door, down the road, around the bend, and over the bridge toward the sliver of horizon never reached.
“You could come with us,” Rini said to her after the kiddush cup had been passed around the table on the Sabbath before they were to leave. “Come to Jerusalem. This place is too small for you.”
Sara’s eyes shone.
Her father looked down at his hands.
But she wanted to go, she wanted to go so very much, and the little bird inside her chest beat its wings harder than ever before, and her heart lifted, and she begged her father to agree.
Such a request wasn’t easy.
Not for her, and not for him.
He searched his daughter’s face and found her mother’s eyes.
He cupped her cheek beneath his wrinkled hand, the same hand that guided hers across parchment, that taught her how to hold a pen, that taught her how to cup minnows from the river in her hand. He measured the strength of her jaw with his fingers, and felt only the slightest tremble beneath her resolve.
And how could she not be but a bit afraid? The girls of their shtetl never went further than over the bridge across the river… maybe to Lodz with their parents if they had enough money and strong horses, and here she wanted to travel across land and sea, from exile back to the beginning.
And he said no.
He had his reasons: He, who had come from the city of Lodz, who knew that the world could be unkind to their kind, who had been beaten within an inch of darkness by a group of boys who called him Dirty Jew, who had broken his little sister in half with bottles, with knives and with their own bodies, he knew that outside the shtetl there was a world with teeth and claws.
And as big as he wanted his daughter to be, and as wide as he wanted her wings to spread, he couldn’t let her fly away.
So, yes, he had his reasons, but he muttered them to his hands. And Sara couldn’t hear them, only the beating of those feathered wings in her chest turned to frantic scrabbling, turned to pecking and scratching.
That night, the stars were shattered once again as they had been when her mother stopped breathing, and she walked the tiny house, measuring the length of each wall with her bare feet.
She passed the shelf of books — even without a candle to see their words, she knew she had read them all.
She passed the wooden table where her father taught her how to read the holy langage of their people on parchment .
She passed the ledge where the kiddush cup sat, the same one her mother had given her father, the same one she polished in mellow light before each Sabbath. the same one that had survived the destruction of her mother’s family.
She picked it up in her hands, and traced the carvings with her fingers, this glass heart of her family.
She woke up the next morning and remembered that the world was big outside the shtetl, and she had to see it. So in between moments when no one was looking, she packed the leavings of 25 birthdays into the worn carpet bag her father had carried with him from Lodz to the shtetl when he traded the world outside for the only one she had known.
That night, she visited her sister, and she told her of her plans to leave for Jerusalem with their cousins.
Miriam hugged her, and Sara felt the baby in her sister’s belly kick through to her own empty womb. She hugged her sister back, and kissed her on each damp, pink cheek.
“He will need me,” Miriam said to her. “Now that he no longer has you.”
Back at home, her father was already asleep, the house steeped in shadow.
“I’ll be back,” she told herself. “It’s only for a while. It’s only just to see beyond the river and over the horizon.”
Dawn came in quiet light. Sara began to write:
Dear Papa, You taught me to ask questions and search beyond my own borders, so I must do this. But I will come back.
She took the carpet bag and headed to the bridge where she knew her cousins would pass by on the way to the main road she had never seen.
The bag felt heavier than she thought it should, and something bumped against her thigh from inside. She opened it, and there tucked into the corner, she knew without having to unwrap it, the kiddush cup in her own father’s prayer shawl.
She knew Lots wife looked back and turned to a pillar of salt, but Sara looked back anyway her eyes blurry, the shtetl soft before her eyes. Still, even through her tears, she could see a figure in the distance, the figure she knew best besides her own, the same wide shoulders that carried her as a child, the the same strong arms that held her in the river the first time she learned to float.
The figure in the distance raised his hand. And she raised hers. And then she turned around and disappeared beyond the river bend.