The News From Ukraine
Like “On Watch,” this story also worked its way into LITTLE GRANDMA’S MIRROR. “The News From Ukraine” was published in Seven Days in December, 2004, and later appeared on a number of synagogue websites through Darim Online. “News” starts with how little I know about my father’s side of the family, and uses that lack of information as a license to invent. My paternal grandparents really did emigrate from a shtetl called Zbarazh, but the Zbarazh that appears in this story and which plays a crucial role in LITTLE GRANDMA’S MIRROR, is a figment of my imagination. The art, which accompanied the story in Seven Days, is the work of the wonderful Abby Manock.
The fireworks! The flags! The throngs of young idealists filling the snowy streets of Lviv! I’m reading the latest news from the Ukraine with the ghost of my father’s mother looking over my shoulder. I’m not sure how she got here, but the smell of her cigarette is unmistakable, and her face – that jutting chin, those cat-eye glasses – is clearly reflected in the mirror above me: part of the legacy I inherited when she died in 1976.
“Those are our people,” I marvel, pointing at the swirl of orange-enswirled demonstrators on my computer screen.
“Our people? No.” Dead nearly three decades, and her voice hasn’t lost its edge.
“Aren’t they?” I click on another page I’ve bookmarked: a map of the historic region of Galicia, where Little Grandma was born. Back then, it was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but before that it was in Poland, and today it’s the Western Ukraine. “Lviv is just 100 miles west of Zbarazh,” I point out.
Twin ribbons of smoke stream from Little Grandma’s nostrils. When she shrugs, her shoulders seem as tiny and brittle as chicken wings. “That doesn’t make them our people,” she says, stubbing out her cigarette. “Our people are long gone from there – left on their own, or were killed. Those people, believe me,” she continues, tapping another Pel Mel from the pack, “are glad to be rid of us. If they’re not Nazis they’re Cossacks.”
Never mind that this is a new generation. Or that they’ve known their own share of tragedy; since the 17th century, the citizens of Zbarazh – Roman and Greek Catholics, Jews, Ruthenians, Poles and Germans – have been trampled by Tartars, besieged by Cossacks, invaded by Nazis, and dominated by Soviets. It’s an old habit with my grandmother, this assuming the worst. This nursing of grudges beyond the grave. Next she’ll be complaining about the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who overran her old neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey, replacing the U-Bet syrup and Wolfe’s buckwheat groats at her local Grand Union with their guava paste and mango nectar. After that, if I don’t stop her, she’ll start in on the blacks. All things considered, her wariness is understandable. But I don’t want to hear it today. I’m still nursing my disappointment over our election. I want to believe that hope can still have its day, that grassroots democracy can still triumph over politics as usual.
“There must have been some good guys in Zbarazh,” I insist. “Something good must have happened there sometime.”
She makes that clicking sound with her dentures. “What would you know about it?” she says.
Not much, it’s true. The few details I do have about Little Grandma’s life begin in 1907, the year she came to New York at the age of 15, leaving a brother behind. I know she found a job sewing lace trim onto women’s underwear. That in the course of a garment workers’ strike, she got arrested for kicking a cop in the shins. That her brother and his family were asphyxiated and incinerated at Belzec. That her baby son died of meningitis and her husband of lung cancer. That she hated Richard Nixon. When I was 12 and we were watching him on TV together, she said, “If I had a gun, so help me, I’d go down to Washington and shoot him. What could they do? Kill me? At my age, believe me, it would be a favor.” When I was 18, she broke her hip, and managed to drag herself across her living room floor to reach the phone and call our house. She never forgave me for calling the ambulance. “You should have let me die then,” she liked to complain.
If you didn’t want help, you shouldn’t have called, I’m tempted to tell her now. But what’s the point of resurrecting a 30-year-old argument? Especially today, when the streets of Lviv are filled with jubilant crowds, I’m aching to rewrite the bitter story she left me.
“Can’t you tell me just one good thing about Zbarazh?” I beg.
“I can’t remember any,” says Grandma. And as if to prove the point, her ghost begins to fade, the twist of lips and her wisps of white hair merging with the smoke, and melting away.
“OK,” I say, suddenly desperate not to lose her. “Then I’ll remember for you.”
“Is that a fact?” she asks, unimpressed. “That ought to be rich.” But already, her voice sounds stronger.
Sometimes, I say, the greatest miracles are those that take place in your mind. Take, for example, the one that occured in Zbarzh 50 years before Little Grandma was born. The town’s spiritual leader in those days was a man by the name of Rabbi Joseph Chaim Waserman Hellerman Zilberman. So spectacularly strict was Rabbi Joseph Chaim Waserman Hellerman Zilberman, so exact his interpretations of Halacha, so engaging his retellings of Aggadah, so slow his stern words, so terrible his temper, so curly his white beard, so long, what’s more, his very name, that the God-loving, synagogue-going, wisdom-respecting, constantly-working, pogram-fearing, Sabbath-keeping, poppy-seed spilling, tongue-wagging Jews of Zbarazh affectionately bestowed upon him a name normally reserved for God, Himself. They called their beloved rabbi Ha-Tzur: The Rock.
But even a rock has it’s problems. Ha-Tzur’s was this: When he preached, the synagogue was so packed that the men downstairs in the sanctuary shockeled all over their neighbors’ sore toes and davinned down each other’s damp necks, while upstairs in the balcony, the women jostled for a spot beside the latticed screen, hoping to reach their fingers through slots and brush the men’s prayers as they rose to heaven.
Everyone complained about the situation. But only Ismar the Imbecile had the audacity to imagine a solution. He prayed for a miracle unknown since Temple times: the blessing of expanded space. And lo and behold, not long afterwards, it happened. Although no walls were knocked down and no construction took place, little by little, the sanctuary’s capacity seemed to improve.
No one could explain the phenomenon until word of Ismar’s prayer got around. Hearing the story, Zissel Yust — a scholar among fish mongers — took it upon himself to investigate the possibility that a divine intervention could had occurred. For months, he trolled sacred texts. And when his research failed to fetch up an answer, he decided to ask the rabbi’s opinion. But bringing a question to a rabbi as impressive as Ha-Tzur was not a task to be taken lightly. So Yust brought along his friend, Itchy Tzigler, the milk man.
With much trepidation, Zissel and Itchy knocked on the rabbi’s door. But man who answered was not Ha-Tzur. It was Wolfe Bobker (The Broom), the rabbi’s cross-eyed assistant.
“We would, well, like to speak, with the rabbi you see,” Itchy Tzigler bravely announced.
“About what?” growled Wolfe Bobker.
“A matter of some importance,” said Tziggler, sniffing.
“Importance to whom?” asked The Broom.
“Well, it is—” stammered the milkman.
“— a matter of theological importance,” the fishmonger finished for him. “A question concerning Talmud. About the matter of a miracle, in fact.” To emphasize his point, Yust puffed out his chest and raised his bearded chin.
But The Broom remained unpersuaded. “A — miracle?” he asked, folding his arms.
At that, the fishmonger ran out of patience. “What is the purpose of all these questions?” he exploded. “Just announce our arrival to the rabbi and be done with it.”
Bobker smiled. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“Of course you can,” Zissel contradicted him.
“I assure you that I can’t,” Bobker replied. “It’s utterly impossible.”
“Nonsense,” said Zissel.
“What is your reason?” asked Itchy, emboldened by Zissel’s courage.
“My reason, quite simply, is that the rabbi isn’t here, and won’t be some time,” said Bobker.
“He’s been called out of town and has left me in charge in his absence.”
“Left you?” asked the milk monger.
“That’s right,” Bobker answered.
“In charge?” asked the fish man.
“Of everything,” said Wolfe.
“For how long?” Tziggler probed.
“Some time,” replied Bobker.
“And how long is that?” Yust persisted.
“The rabbi will return when the rabbi returns. Not a second sooner, nor a moment later.”
Bobker’s eyes unaccountably uncrossed, then re-crossed to their original positions. “These things can’t be rushed,” he continued with a well-practiced shrug. “And on the other hand, they must not be delayed.”
Itchy looked at Zissel and Zissel looked at Itchy. Wolfe’s words, both were thinking, had a decidedly rabbinical ring. Proximity, perhaps, to the illustrious Rock had had its impact on the mind of the Broom. And what’s more, they reasoned, if the rabbi wasn’t available, the rabbi wasn’t available. And furthermore, they concluded, didn’t the story of Balak and Balaam demonstrate that even an ass might see an angel? Which was another way of saying that if an Imbecile could recognize a miracle, then it stood to reason that a Broom could apprehend an Imbecile’s insight.
Reassured, Itchy and Zissel followed the assistant as he led them down a long hall and into the rabbi’s study. Drapes darkened the window. The air was rich with the ripe aroma of ponderous rumination. Shadowy volumes occupied every wall. Bobker indicated two tippy chairs, then set out three tumblers and poured Schnapps: a single drop into each glass. The men raised their glasses, toasted l’chaim, and tossed back the throat-searing liquid. Then they wiped their lips with the backs of their hands and the visitors told their tale of squeezes and space and an Imbecile’s prayer, ending with Zissel’s exhaustive research, including footnotes, appendices and several scholarly asides.
“My point is this,” he concluded. “I have nothing against the man per se, but it’s obvious to all of us that Ismar is, well, an imbecile. And so what I was wondering, Bobker, I mean, what we came here to ask is whether the prayers of such a person are actually worthy of a Divine response. And although I certainly love Zbarazh as much as anyone, I think we can all agree here, between friends, that our town is not exactly a Lemberg or even a Tarnopil, for that matter. So my second question, Bobker, is this: Does a village as insignificant as ours merit an actual miracle?”
Bobker leaned back in his chair. His fat middle finger pried a stubborn morsel of something from between his teeth. Then he held the prize up for cross-eyed examination and popped it back into his mouth. At last, he leaned forward and poured another round, this time bequeathing each waiting vessel with two drops of the precious whiskey. When the men had once again raised their glasses, toasted l’chaim and tossed back the chest-warming liquid, Wolfe produced a rich, round belch, wiped his wet lips with the back of his hand, and countered Yust’s two questions with 15 inquiries of his own.
“What exactly do you mean,” Bobker asked, “by a man such as Ismar? And what, after all, is the significance of a town? And what’s more, my friends, why worry yourselves over a blessing? Either God has or God has not bestowed upon us the favor of a little extra room in which to say our humble prayers. And if He has? Who are we to question the appropriateness of the gift? And if He hasn’t? If this theoretical miracle, this unexplained expansion, is only some sort of misunderstanding? What then? Or, to put it more simply, so what? If a blessing can be an illusion, doesn’t it follow that an illusion can be a blessing?”
Zissel fingered his fishy beard, sneaking a sideways glance at Itchy. Itchy twiddled his milky mustache, sneaking his own sideways glance at Zissel. No question, there was a logic to the assistant’s words. Bobker poured three golden drops into each crystal glass, toasted l’chaim, tossed back his drink, uncrossed and re-crossed his eyes, and wiped his wet lips with his hand.
“Here in Zbarazh,” he said, “we’ve known our share of sorrows. But do we ever stop to question their legitimacy? Do we ever wonder whether people like us are worthy, as you say, of such a Divine response? Do we doubt that a town as insignificant as ours merits such authentic tzoris? To make a long story short, would it be such a tragedy if for once in our lives we simply enjoyed the illusion of being blessed?”
The sublime logic of Bobker’s words was surpassed only by their astounding lightness. Tzigler and Yust could feel Broom’s sentences’ buoyant lack of substance filling their blood. The sensation was neither familiar nor disagreeable. Winter darkness had descended outside in the street, but here in the rabbi’s study, the air appeared to be brighter. The shadows seemed thinner, the brooding books to have shed a measure of their forbidding weight. Even the oppressive odor of deep thought that had assaulted their nostrils when they’d entered seemed to have been replaced by the scent of something subtle and sweet. The expansive tone of the Broom’s response had, in short, conjured up in the inner sanctum of The Rock, the very phenomenon the men had come to question.
Maybe it was an illusion, and maybe it was the Schnapps, but as Itchy and Zissel bid the Broom farewell, the very bounce in their steps felt alarmingly broad and blessed.
A caterpillar of curled ash hangs off the end of my grandmother’s cigarette. I reach out my hand, ready to catch it before it falls on the rug. Instead, it surprises me, unfolding grey wings and fluttering, moth-like, towards the light of the screen. Anything is possible, I think, astonished, and turn to Little Grandma with a radiant smile, ready to begin our new chapter.
She bats the ash-moth away with her frail hand and says, “Rabbis, politicians, believe me, they’re all the same: shysters hoodwinking willing idiots with a bunch of smoke and mirrors.”