THE RABBI'S GIRLS
Excerpted from THE RABBI'S GIRLS by Johanna Hurwitz.
Wherever we lived, one thing was always the same. Winter seemed to last forever, and when it finally ended and spring arrived, the new season lasted only a few days. Then it was summer, and we all sat about fanning ourselves and trying to recall the cold days that we had hated a few months earlier.
The last Saturday in June was dreadfully hot. From the moment I woke, I felt grumpy and uncomfortable. In the first place, I had developed a prickly heat rash around my neck where the nightgown had rubbed during my sleep. Even talcum powder did not make it feel better. Secondly, the milk at breakfast had turned sour from the hot weather. All the ice in the icebox had melted, and we wouldn't be able to get any more before Monday. And finally, it was Shabbos, which meant that there weren't too many things that I could do to distract myself from the awful heat. On the day of rest, we couldn't write or draw or color or sew. Abby couldn't play the piano. If only it were Sunday, Doris and I could have begged Mama for money to go see the new moving picture at the theater. That would have been the best way to forget the hot weather.
"Who would like to walk with me to the shul?" Papa asked, as he got ready to leave. But who had the energy to walk the blocks to the synagogue? I watched as Papa left and was glad that I didn't have to spend the morning sitting in the stuffy temple. Papa was wearing his black suit and carrying his prayer shawl in the little cloth bag that Mama had made for it. How awful to have to wear a suit, I thought. At the synagogue, Papa would put a robe on too. I wondered if he could take off his jacket underneath the robe. No one would know, except God, of course. But surely he would understand about the heat. Papa walked slowly down the street. He had not been feeling well during the past few weeks.
Because it was Shabbos, there were no chores to be done except feeding the chickens. Doris and I started a game of anagrams at the kitchen table. Since we couldn't write on Shabbos, we kept score by putting pieces of paper in a book at the page number that indicated the number of points we had. Even though Evie didn't know enough words to play, she stood at the table, watching us. Must you stand so close to us?" I complained. "There is hardly any air to breathe."
Evie walked away. Lorain was crawling on the floor. How lucky to be a baby, I thought, observing her. She was wearing only a diaper. She didn't seem to know that it was hot or that it was Saturday. Every day is exactly the same for a baby, I decided.
"Maybe it's cooler out on the porch," I suggested to Doris. I could feel the sweat dripping down my back under my dress. The day was going to be a long, long one. We moved our game, but on the porch I couldn't help being distracted by the children passing down the street with their towels over their arms and their bathing suits under their clothes. They were going to swim down at the lake. If only Doris and I could go too, I thought. But on Shabbos, Jewish children are not permitted to do such things. We could go to the library, but even it did not appeal to me today. It was too hot!
When Papa came home at noon, he looked flushed with the heat. He walked even more slowly than he had in the morning. "You should have stayed home. I knew you weren't feeling well," Mama scolded him.
"Tomorrow I will stay home," Papa said. "Today it was my duty to hold services."
"Duty!" shrieked Mama. "You owe nothing to those people." I knew she was referring to the members of the synagogue. Dr. Mandelbaum had announced to the board that he had no intention of voting to renew the rabbi's contract when it expired next year.
"Hush," said Papa. "My duty is to God and to my family. Now it is to my stomach. Aren't you going to serve me anything to eat?"
Papa knew that food would distract Mama from her concern for him. He needed to eat more than he had been recently. On the table were cold chicken and vegetables that had been cooked the day before. There was also bread that Mama had baked on Friday, but nobody ate much. It was too hot. When the meal was over, Papa and Mama retired to their bedroom for a nap. I thought that Papa napped more often these days than he used to.
I took my library book, Anne of Green Gables, and sat down with it out on the porch. I had already read the story once, but the afternoon hours would pass faster if I read it again.
"Read to me," begged Evie.
"Oh, Evie, I can't. It's so hot I can't make my voice work," I complained.
Abby had put Lorain down for a nap, but the baby was restless. "I'm going to take Lorain for a walk," she said, putting the baby into the old carriage. "Come with us," she invited Evie.
I was glad not to be bothered anymore. Betty and Doris were reading too. The house was quiet. Only the squeaking of the carriage wheels as Abby and Evie walked away on the sidewalk interrupted the silence.
"It looks like rain," said Abby. "We won't go far, just around the corner and back."
I looked up from my book for a moment. She was right. I hadn't noticed it before, but the sky did seem darker than it had been earlier. In a short time Abby and Evie were back. Abby asked me to help her lift the carriage up onto the porch. Lorain had fallen asleep, and now it had begun to rain lightly.
"Perhaps the rain will cool us off," said Abby, wiping her forehead with her handkerchief.
"I wish we could go to the moving pictures," whined Evie.
"Don't be silly," said Abby. "This is Shabbos. Come, I'll read you a story," she said.
I watched them walk inside. Abby was always good. I knew that I should have offered to read to Evie, but it was so hot that I had no patience for doing good deeds. Even sitting on the porch while the rain drizzled down wasn't cooling, but I became so absorbed in my book that I didn't notice the weather or the time.
Vaguely I heard the murmur of voices from inside the house. Abby and Betty were setting the table for an early supper. The china dishes clattered sociably. I wondered why Betty had stayed home today. She usually said that she was spending Saturday afternoon with one of her classmates. In a sense she did, but what she never told was that they spent the time together at the theater.
I got up and walked into the kitchen. There on the table was a large bowl of strawberries and smaller bowls containing sour cream and cottage cheese. The red of the berries looked lovely against the white tablecloth. The light coming in the window had a greenish cast, and it gave everything a strange glow.
Abby put out cups for tea, and Betty was counting out the spoons at each place. I reached out my hand to take one of the berries.
Suddenly, from one moment to the next, a wind began to howl outside and the rain that had been drizzling gently began to fall in torrents. Abby rushed outside to bring in the carriage, which was still out on the porch.
Mama ran into the kitchen. "Hurry!" she shouted to us all. "Go down into the cellar. I will wake Papa." Her voice was shrill with fright. For a moment, I stood stunned. Then I grabbed Evie and pulled her along. Doris was behind us, and Betty too. Abby snatched Lorain from the carriage. The baby whimpered softly, not understanding why she had been yanked from her dreams.
Papa and Mama joined us in the little basement area. Even with the door to the kitchen closed, we could hear the fierceness of the wind banging shutters and breaking glass. There were enormous crashes of thunder too. All the noise was frightening.
"Thank God we are together," said Mama. "Thank God it is Shabbos."
I pressed close to her. I had never heard so much noise. The wind was so strong that it seemed as if the house would be blown away.
"Is this the end of the world?" Evie asked.
"Hush, hush," scolded Mama. "Don't talk nonsense."
Evie and Doris were crying. I had no tears in my eyes, but my breath came in gasps. I had never felt so frightened in all my life.
"Papa," I whispered, "say a prayer for us."
It was so dark in the basement that I couldn't see, but I felt Papa lift his hands and cover his head with them. He had jumped out of bed so quickly that for once his head was uncovered. He began to chant some words in Hebrew. I didn't know what they meant, but there was something in Papa's tone that made me feel better. He knew the language of God, and surely everything would be fine if he spoke to Him. He would tell God to stop the wind from blowing down our house.
"Amen," Papa concluded.
Everyone except Lorain echoed the word. "Amen."
For a moment we stood in silence. "Listen," I said. "The wind stopped. It really did."
We stood together, listening to the silence.
"Oh, Papa, you did it," said Doris. "You stopped the wind."
"I did not stop it," said Papa. "But I am glad it is over." He listened again. "It seems quiet. I will go upstairs and take a look," he said. "Everyone wait here until I call you," he added, when we started to follow behind him.
I stood waiting with my hands clenched into fists. Even though the horrid wind had ceased, I was still afraid.
Papa called from above. "I think it is safe to come up. Just watch where you step."
At the top of the basement steps, I took a deep breath. A horrible sight was waiting for us. In the dim light of the room, I could see that the floor was covered with broken glass and china. The wind had knocked out several windows, and where the table had stood so serenely just a few minutes ago there was now a rubble of shattered glass, broken chairs, and strawberries.
Lorain began to laugh. She didn't know enough to be afraid. "She thinks this is all a game," said Mama, taking the baby from Abby's arms.
"What happened?" Doris asked. We were standing by one of the broken windows and looking out into the rain and at the maple tree in Big Artie's yard. That tree that had been growing since before any of us were born had been uprooted. It lay half in the yard and half on Brownell Avenue. An automobile that had been parked on the street in its path was completely smashed. Our chicken coop was gone, and one lone hen was running about in the rain outside.
"What happened?" asked Betty, repeating Doris's question.
"Is this the end of the world?" asked Evie, for the second time in half an hour. "Is the Messiah coming?"
I shuddered, but whether because of Evie's words or the dreadful destruction all around, I didn't know.
"Nonsense," said Papa. "That was a tornado wind that just blew past us. But we are all well. Baruch ha shem. Bless the Lord. No one here was harmed."
"That wind was awful," I said. "I don't think I'll ever forget that sound. I thought the house would blow away. I always felt so cozy and protected in our house, but look at this." I pointed to all the rubble. "Even houses aren't safe. Suppose we had been eating supper." Then I broke into tears.
Lorain strained in Mama's arms. She tried to reach out for one of the berries that was on the floor. Somehow, although trees had fallen, a berry had managed to retain its perfect shape.
"Lorain is so lucky," I said. "She doesn't know what happened at all. She will never remember this day."
Papa put his arm around me. "Hush," he said. "The Lord looked over us. You are safe and the storm has gone." He turned to Mama. "I must go and see if the members of the congregation are all well. Some may be hurt and needing help."
"Asher, you can't go out. You're not well yourself," protested Mama.
I looked closely at Papa. In the dim light his skin shone pale and sickly. There was more white in his beard than black these days, and he seemed very frail. Every hour Papa appeared to be aging by months; he was becoming an old man before our very eyes.
"I must go," said Papa firmly. "The people need me." Evie started to cry. "Suppose the wind comes back," she said. "Who will pray for us?"
"I will always pray for you, wherever I am." said Papa, reassuring her and all of us.
"Take your coat," said Mama. "It's still raining." She seemed resigned to Papa's going outside.
"May I come with you, Papa?" I asked. "Maybe I can help too."
"I'll come too," said Betty. The two of us hurried out the door before Mama thought of arguments to keep us inside.
Outside the world seemed turned upside down. Trees were lying across the roads, cars were where cars had never been before, fences had been blown down. There were houses without roofs, roofs without houses, broken glass, smashed furniture, fires, people walking out in the street, people crying and shouting.
"It looks like the pictures in my history book of France during th Great War," said Betty softly.
"It's awful," I said, gooseflesh covering my arms. I grabbed Papa's hand.
"Careful," someone shouted to us. "The electric wire is down. The poles blew down in the storm."
A policeman stopped us. "There is a curfew," he said. "Everyone must go inside. No one is to be out on the streets."
"Curfew?" Betty asked.
"Yes," said the policeman. "There is looting in some areas, and we're afraid that people will get hurt."
"I'm the rabbi," said Papa. "Rabbi Levin of Temple B'Nai Israel. I must go and see if the members of my congregation need help."
"I'll let you through, sir," said the policeman to Papa. "But these girls must go home."
I didn't know whether to be relieved or annoyed that the policeman escorted us back home. The streets were frightening, but I didn't feel in danger.
"A terrible tragedy happened in town," the policeman told us.
"Worse than all this?" I asked. I couldn't imagine anything worse than the damaged houses I saw around me.
"The balcony collapsed at the State Theater. It was filled with people watching the moving picture when the storm came and knocked it down. They were still counting the bodies when I left," the policeman said. "But I think at least seventy people were killed."
Betty and I both gasped. The policeman seemed sorry that he had spoken. "It's all right. You're both safe," he said, as we reached our house. "Luckily, this part of town escaped the worst of the damage."
He turned and went down the street. Betty had her hand on the knob of the door, but I stopped her from opening it. "Oh, Betty!" I said. "Suppose you had been there. You often go on Saturday," I accused her.
"Well, I didn't go today!" she answered sharply, but I could hear the fear in her voice.
I threw my arms around her. "Oh Betty, this is all so terrible, like a bad dream. I wish we would wake up."
Betty hugged me tight. "Shush," she said. "Mama will hear us. We mustn't upset her. Things are bad enough as they are." She was about to say more, but the door opened. Abby stood in the doorway holding a candle for light. It was a braided havdalah candle that under normal circumstances would have been lit at sundown to mark the end of Shabbos. "I thought I heard voices," she said. "Come in and tell us what is happening outside. The telephone lines must be down, because the phone is dead. I've tried calling the police and the newspaper for information, but I can't reach anyone."
We went inside. Mama was rocking Lorain on her lap. Evie was curled up on the sofa, asleep. Even though the Sabbath was over, two Sabbath candles were burning in their holders, giving the only light in the room.
Neither Betty nor I mentioned the tragedy at the State Theater. There would be time enough for that news when Papa came home. "It is awful outside," said Betty simply. That was enough.
"The street looks like a war," I said, sitting down beside Mama.
"Thank God we are all safe and well," said Mama. "It is a miracle. A true miracle."
Then she spit three times to ward off the evil eye.