Jakub Shlayfer opened the door and walked outside to go to work. Before he could shut it again, his wife called after him: “Alevai it should be a good day! We really need the gelt!”
“Alevai, Bertha. Omayn,” Jakub agreed. The door was already shut by then, but what difference did that make? It wasn’t as if he didn’t know they were poor. His lean frame, the rough edge on the brim of his broad, black hat, his threadbare long, black coat, and the many patches on his boot soles all told the same story.
But then, how many Jews in Wawolnice weren’t poor? The only one Jakub could think of was Shmuel Grynszpan, the undertaker. His business was as solid and certain as the laws of God. Everybody else’s? Groszy and zlotych always came in too slowly and went out too fast.
He stumped down the unpaved street, skirting puddles. Not all the boot patches were everything they might have been. He didn’t want to get his feet wet. He could have complained to Mottel Cohen, but what was the use? Mottel did what Mottel could do. And it wasn’t as if Wawolnice had—or needed—two cobblers. It you listened to Mottel’s kvetching, the village didn’t need one cobbler often enough.
The watery spring morning promised more than the day was likely to deliver. The sun was out, but clouds to the west warned it was liable to rain some more. Well, it wouldn’t snow again till fall. That was something. Jakub skidded on mud and almost fell. It might be something, but it wasn’t enough.
Two-story houses with steep, wood-shingled roofs crowded the street from both sides and caused it to twist here and turn there. They made it hard for the sun to get down to the street and dry up the mud. More Jews came out of the houses to go to their jobs. The men dressed pretty much like Jakub. Some of the younger ones wore cloth caps instead of broad-brimmed hats. Chasidim, by contrast, had fancy shtreimels, with the brims made from mink.
A leaning fence made Jakub go out toward the middle of the narrow street. Most of the graying planks went up and down. For eight or ten feet, though, boards running from side to side patched a break. They were as ugly as the patches on his boots. A hooded crow perched on the fence jeered at Jakub.
He had to push in tight to the fence because an old couple from the country were pushing a handcart toward him, and making heavy going of it. The crow flew away. Wicker baskets in the handcart were piled high with their fiery horseradish, milder red radishes, onions, leeks, and kale.
“Maybe you’ll see my wife today, Moishe,” Jakub called.
“Here’s hoping,” the old man said. His white beard spilled in waves halfway down his chest. He wore a brimless fur cap that looked something like an upside-down chamber pot.
Chamber pots . . . The air was thick with them. Shmuel Grynszpan had piped water in his house, as his wife never tired of boasting. Not many other Jews—and precious few Poles—in Wawolnice did. They said—whoever they were—you stopped noticing how a village stank once you’d lived in it for a little while. As he often did, Jakub wished they knew what they were talking about.
Signs above the tavern, the dry-goods store, the tailor’s shop, Jakub’s own sorry little business, and the handful of others Wawolnice boasted were in both Polish and Yiddish. Two different alphabets running two different ways . . . If that didn’t say everything that needed saying about how Jews and Poles got along—or didn’t get along—Jakub couldn’t imagine what would.
He used a fat iron key to open the lock to his front door. The hinges creaked when he pulled it toward him. Have to oil that, he thought. Somewhere in his shop, he had a copper oilcan. If he could find it, if he remembered to look for it . . . If he didn’t, neither the world nor even the door was likely to come to an end.
He was a grinder. Anything that was dull, he could sharpen: knives, scissors, straight razors (for the Poles—almost all the Jewish men wore beards), plowshares, harvester blades. He was a locksmith. He repaired clocks—and anything else with complicated gearing. He made umbrellas out of wire and scrap cloth, and fixed the ones he’d made before. He sold patent medicines, and brewed them up from this and that in the dark, musty back room. He would turn his hand to almost anything that might make a zloty.
Lots of things might make a zloty. Hardly anything, outside of Grynszpan’s business, reliably did. Wawolnice wasn’t big enough to need a full-time grinder or locksmith or repairman or umbrella maker or medicine mixer. Even doing all of them at once, Jakub didn’t bring home enough to keep Bertha happy.
Of course, he could have brought home more than the undertaker made and still not kept his wife happy. Some people weren’t happy unless they were unhappy. There was a paradox worthy of the Talmud—unless you knew Bertha.
Across the way, the little boys in Alter Kaczyne’s kheder began chanting the alef-bays. While Alter worked with them, their older brothers and cousins would wrestle with Hebrew vocabulary and grammar on their own. Or maybe the melamed’s father would lend a hand. Chaim Kaczyne coughed all the time and didn’t move around very well anymore, but his wits were still clear.
Jakub went to work on a clock a Polish woman had brought in. His hands were quick and clever. Scars seamed them; you couldn’t be a grinder without things slipping once in a while. And dirt and grease had permanent homes under his nails and in the creases on top of his fingers. But hands were to work with, and work with them he did.
“Here we are,” he muttered: a broken tooth on one of the gears. He rummaged through a couple of drawers to see if he had one that matched. And sure enough! The replacement went into the clock. He didn’t throw out the damaged one. He rarely threw anything out. He’d braze on a new tooth and use the gear in some less demanding place.
The woman came in not long after he finished the clock. She wore her blond hair in a short bob; her skirt rose halfway to her knees. You’d never catch a Jewish woman in Wawolnice in anything so scandalously short. She nodded to find the clock ticking again. They haggled a little over the price. Jakub had warned her it would go up if he had to put in a new gear. She didn’t want to remember. She was shaking her head when she smacked coins down on the counter and walked out.
He eyed—not to put too fine a point on it, he leered at—her shapely calves as her legs twinkled away. He was a man, after all. He was drawn to smooth flesh the way a butterfly was drawn to flowers. No wonder the women of his folk covered themselves from head to foot. No wonder Jewish wives wore sheitels and head scarves. They didn’t want to put themselves on display like that. But the Poles were different. The Poles didn’t care.
So what? The Poles were goyim.
He sharpened one of his own knives, a tiny, precise blade. He often did that when he had nothing else going on. He owned far and away the sharpest knives in the village. He would have been happier if they were duller, so long as it was because he stayed too busy to work on them.
A kid carrying a basket of bagels stuck his head in the door. Jakub spent a few groszy to buy one. The boy hurried away, short pants showing off his skinny legs. He didn’t have a police license to peddle, so he was always on the dodge.
“Barukh atah Adonai, eloyahynu melekh ha-olam, ha-motzi lekhem min ha-aretz,” Jakub murmured. Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who makest bread to come forth from the earth. Only after the prayer did he eat the bagel.
Yiddish. Polish. Hebrew. Aramaic. He had them all. No one who knew Yiddish didn’t also know German. A man who spoke Polish could, at need, make a stab at Czech or Ruthenian or Russian. All the Yehudim in Wawolnice were scholars, even if they didn’t always think of themselves so.
Back to sharpening his own knives. It had the feel of another slow day. Few days here were anything else. The ones that were, commonly weren’t good days.
After a while, the front door creaked open again. Jakub jumped to his feet in surprise and respect. “Reb Eliezer!” he exclaimed. “What can I do for you today?” Rabbis, after all, had knives and scissors that needed sharpening just like other men’s.
But Eliezer said, “We were talking about serpents the other day.” He had a long, pale, somber face, with rusty curls sticking out from under his hat brim, a wispy copper beard streaked with gray, and cat-green eyes.
“Oh, yes. Of course.” Jakub nodded. They had been speaking of serpents, and all sorts of other Talmudic pilpul, in the village’s bet ha-midrash attached to the little shul. The smell of the books in the tall case there, the aging leather of their bindings, the paper on which they were printed, even the dust that shrouded the seldom-used volumes, were part and parcel of life in Wawolnice.
So . . . No business—no moneymaking business—now. Bertha would not be pleased to see this. She would loudly not be pleased to see it, as a matter of fact. But she would also be secretly proud because the rabbi chose her husband, a grinder of no particular prominence, with whom to split doctrinal hairs.
“Obviously,” Reb Eliezer said in portentous tones, “the serpent is unclean for Jews to eat or to handle after it is dead. It falls under the ban of Leviticus 11:29, 11:30, and 11:42.”
“Well, that may be so, but I’m not so sure,” Jakub answered, pausing to light a stubby, twisted cigar. He offered one to Reb Eliezer, who accepted with a murmur of thanks. After blowing out harsh smoke, the grinder went on, “I don’t think those verses are talking about serpents at all.”
Eliezer’s gingery eyebrows leaped. “How can you say such a thing?” he demanded, wagging a forefinger under Jakub’s beaky nose. “Verse 42 says, ‘Whatsoever goeth upon the belly, and whatsoever goeth upon all four, or whatsoever hath more feet among all creeping things that creep upon the earth, them ye shall not eat; for they are an abomination.’” Like Jakub, he could go from Yiddish to Biblical Hebrew while hardly seeming to notice he was switching languages.
Jakub shrugged a stolid shrug. “I don’t hear anything there that talks about serpents. Things that go on all fours, things with lots of legs. I don’t want to eat a what-do-you-call-it—a centipede, I mean. Who would? Even a goy wouldn’t want to eat a centipede . . . I don’t think.” He shrugged again, as if to say no Jew counted on anything that had to do with goyim.
“‘Whatsoever goeth upon the belly . . . among all the creeping things that creep upon the earth,’” Reb Eliezer repeated. “And this same phrase also appears in the twenty-ninth verse, which says, ‘These also shall be unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth;—’”
“‘ —the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind.’” Jakub took up the quotation, and went on into the next verse: “‘ And the ferret, and the chameleon, and the lizard, and the snail, and the mole.’ I don’t see a word in there about serpents.” He blew out another stream of smoke, not quite at the rabbi.
Eliezer affected not to notice. “Since when is a serpent not a creeping thing that goeth upon its belly? Will you tell me it doesn’t?”
“It doesn’t now,” Jakub admitted.
“It did maybe yesterday?” Eliezer suggested sarcastically.
“Not yesterday. Not the day before yesterday, either,” Jakub said. “But when the Lord, blessed be His name, made the serpent, He made it to speak and to walk on its hind legs like a man. What else does that? Maybe He made it in His own image.”
“But God told the serpent, ‘Thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast in the field: upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.’”
“So He changed it a little. So what?” Jakub said. Reb Eliezer’s eyebrow jumped again at a little, but he held his peace. The grinder went on, “Besides, the serpent is to blame for mankind’s fall. Shouldn’t we pay him back by cooking him in a stew?”
“Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t. But that argument isn’t Scriptural,” the rabbi said stiffly.
“Well, what if it isn’t? How about this . . . ?” Jakub went off on another tangent from the Torah.
They fenced with ideas and quotations through another cigar apiece. At last, Reb Eliezer threw his pale hands in the air and exclaimed, “In spite of the plain words of Leviticus, you come up with a hundred reasons why the accursed serpent ought to be as kosher as a cow!”
“Oh, not a hundred reasons. Maybe a dozen.” Jakub was a precise man, as befitted a trade where a slip could cost a finger. But he also had his own kind of pride: “Give me enough time, and I suppose I could come up with a hundred.”
A sort of a smile lifted one corner of Reb Eliezer’s mouth. “Then perhaps now you begin to see why Rabbi Jokhanan of Palestine, of blessed memory, said hundreds of years ago that no man who could not do what you are doing had the skill he needed to open a capital case.”
As it so often did, seemingly preposterous Talmudic pilpul came back to the way Jews were supposed to live their lives. “I should hope so,” Jakub answered. “You have to begin a capital case with the reasons for acquitting whoever is on trial. If you can’t find those reasons, someone else had better handle the case.”
“I agree with you.” The rabbi wagged his forefinger at Jakub once more. “You won’t hear me tell you that very often.”
“Gevalt! I should hope not!” Jakub said in mock horror.
Reb Eliezer’s eyes twinkled. “And so I had better go,” he continued, as if the grinder hadn’t spoken. “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
“And you, Reb,” Jakub replied. Eliezer dipped his head. He walked out of the shop and down the street. A man came in wanting liniment for a horse. Jakub compounded some. It made his business smell of camphor and turpentine the rest of the day. It also put a couple of more zlotych in his pocket. Bertha would be . . . less displeased.
Shadows stretched across Wawolnice. Light began leaking out of the sky. The rain had held off, anyhow. People headed home from their work. Jakub was rarely one of the first to call it a day. Before long, though, the light coming in through the dusty front windows got too dim to use. Time to quit, all right.
He closed up and locked the door. He’d done some tinkering with the lock. He didn’t think anybody not a locksmith could quietly pick it. Enough brute force, on the other hand . . . Jews in Poland understood all they needed to about brute force, and about who had enough of it. Jakub Shlayfer’s mobile mouth twisted. Polish Jews didn’t, never had, and never would.
He walked home through the gathering gloom. “Stinking Yid!” The shrei in Polish pursued him. His shoulders wanted to sag under its weight, and the weight of a million more like it. He didn’t, he wouldn’t, let them. If the mamzrim saw they’d hurt you, they won. As long as a rock didn’t follow, he was all right. And if one did, he could duck or dodge. He hoped.
No rocks tonight. Candles and kerosene lamps sent dim but warm glows out into the darkness. If you looked at the papers, electricity would come to the village soon. Then again, if you looked at the papers and believed everything you read in them, you were too dumb to live.
Bertha met him at the door. Sheitel, head scarf over it, long black dress . . . She still looked good to him. She greeted him with, “So what were you and Reb Eliezer going on about today?”
“Serpents,” Jakub answered.
“Pilpul.” His wife’s sigh said she’d hoped for better, even if she hadn’t expected it. “I don’t suppose he had any paying business.”
“He didn’t, no,” the grinder admitted. “But Barlicki’s wife came in for her clock. I had to swap out a gear, so I charged her more. I told her before that I would, but she still didn’t like it.”
“And God forbid you should make Barlicki’s wife unhappy.” Bertha knew he thought the Polish woman was pretty, then. How long would she go on giving him a hard time about that? The next couple of days ought to be interesting. Not necessarily enjoyable, but interesting.
He did what he could to show Bertha he appreciated her. Nostrils twitching, he said, “What smells so good?”
“Soup with chicken feet,” she replied, sounding slightly softened. “Cabbage, carrots, onions, mangel-wurzel . . .”
Mangel-wurzel was what you used when you couldn’t afford turnips. Chicken feet were what you put in soup when you wanted it to taste like meat but you couldn’t afford much of the genuine article. You could gnaw on them, worrying off a little skin or some of the tendons that would have led to the drumsticks. You wouldn’t rise up from the table happy, but you might rise up happier.
He stepped past her and into the small, crowded front room, with its rammed-earth floor and battered, shabby furniture. The little brass mezuzah still hung on the doorframe outside. He rarely gave it a conscious thought. Most of the time he only noticed it when it wasn’t there, so to speak. Stealing mezuzahs was one way Polish kids found to aggravate their Jewish neighbors. Not only that, but they might get a couple of groszy for the brass.
Bertha closed the front door behind him and let the bar fall into its bracket. The sound of the stout plank thudding into place seemed very final, as if it put a full stop to the day. And so—again, in a manner of speaking—it did.