The Gypsy and the Rabbi’s Wife

The Fairy Tale. Part 3

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A Polish shtetl in winter (chabad.org)

The first thing you should know about me is that I have Romany blood. My mother was a Jew, and my biological father — not the man who raised me — was a gypsy. I never knew him, never met him. The thing my mother of blessed memory, Gavra Leah, remembers about him is his great smile, his black mustache over pearl-white teeth, his blazing black eyes — her words, ‘blazing,’ — an all-consuming heat.

My mother grew up on a little Jewish shtetl, a small village. It was on the border between Poland and Germany, well placed between a mountain and a forest.

When she was 16 years old, she remembered a warm night in June when a gypsy caravan had stopped near her village. That night my mother was awakened by a gypsy song — a faraway rhythm and a man’s voice. She remembered getting dressed in a yellow cotton dress with a white smock, and her only pair of summer shoes, a white canvass pair her mother sewed for her, and climbing out the window. She had to follow that song, she had to know who sang it. She ran into the forest, ran into the clearing, saw the caravan surround a large bonfire, and was drawn to that fire like a moth to a flame. Again, I am quoting her — “like a moth to a flame.” She told me the story so many times, I memorized it, word for word.

The memory of the song, the caravan, how the gypsies let her join in the dancing and singing, the fire-lit night and my biological father’s handsome face, his dark hair, his beautiful voice that sang the songs. She recalled that evening, but the rest of it was like a dream, like wisps of fog.

The next thing my mother knew, she awoke from this dream, and was standing in the middle of that same clearing, now knee-deep in snow, wearing long winter boots and a long coat made of wolf pelts, heavy with child. You guessed it — me.

In a daze, she walked to her village, came to her house, and knocked timidly on the door, scared to just walk in. When her father opened the door and saw his daughter, whom everyone had given up for dead, he had fallen down on his knees, and wept, thanking God for returning her back home. Her mother flew out of the house and started kissing and hugging her. They almost didn’t care that she came back pregnant, as long as she came back alive.

The rabbi of the shtetl examined Gavra and her belly with the help of the midwife. Unable to remember anything after the night in the gypsy camp and where she had been for the past eight months, there was no doubt that she has been bewitched. An emergency village meeting was called in our little synagogue, with the rabbi presiding.

“This woman, Gavra Leah, has had a spell put upon her, and therefore she is blameless for what happened to her. She is considered pure and innocent. And since she is of the marriageable age, we shall simply forgo the yenta services and ask of the suitable men of the village, ‘Who will have this woman as a wife and who will raise her child as his own?’”

Even in her state, my mother was lovely, small and pretty, with delicate features. There may have been several hands raised at the gathering, but it didn’t matter, because behind the rabbi a voice rang out, and the rabbi’s son spoke as he stepped forward, “I would be honored to marry Gavra Leah. Her child will be my child. Our child.”

My father, the rabbi’s son and the man who raised me, may he be for blessed memory, Moishe Tevye, was the kindest and gentlest man I have ever known. But he was not the handsomest man in the room. He was built not like a rabbi but like a working man — like a fire hydrant. He looked more like a longshoreman than a rabbinic scholar. Moishe adored my mother and me, and was happiest reading at home, near a stove as my mother was baking and I was tucked in for the night on a small, straw bed nearby.

At the time of the meeting in the synagogue, Moishe was 20 years old. He had, of course, seen Gavra around the village, and had spoken to her on maybe two or three occasions. He had been part of the group that had searched for her when she went missing.

And my mother, Gavra? Well, she was nobody’s fool. As soon as the words of proposal were out of Moishe’s mouth, she looked straight at him, and said, “The honor is mine, Reb Moishe. I accept.” I was born one month after my parent’s marriage.

For the next seven years, we were a happy family. My father became the rabbi of our village when his father passed away, my mother was the village’s unofficial baker. Her apple strudel is something I still dream about. My parents tried, but did not have any other children. My father taught me Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and German in between lessons about the Torah and the Talmud, and the history of our people. Although we lived in Poland, my mother spoke to me mostly in Yiddish. When I was growing up, five to six years old, we knew there was a war on, and knew things were bad for Jews, but we had nowhere to go. We hoped, in our tiny little village, we could ride out these troubles. Everything we needed we grew or made, we were self-reliant and nearly invisible. Nearly invisible, not completely.

“In February of 1944, Germany was losing the war. The people were starving, even at home, the government wanted a new agricultural camp, to grow food nearby. Hitler’s Minister of Agriculture, not wanting to use any German soldiers for farming, decided to use readily available Jewish slave labor. He just relocated some from a few Polish concentration camps, and decided to build his new camp for agriculture by taking our crops, our cattle and chickens, and at the same time getting rid of a few more Jews.

I just turned seven years old and was very small for my age, but I was quick. I was getting milk for mama, from young Feivish’s cows, and was just turning the corner around the old Meir’s place when I heard the marching of the boots. I hid behind the steps.

There was a group of ten soldiers in green overcoats, led by an officer in a black great coat. When they got to the middle of the street, they stopped.

In German, the officer shouted, “I want to talk to the Jew in charge.”

My father was in the synagogue at the time. He opened the door and walked outside. “I am in charge,” he said in German, calmly.

The officer came up to him, took out his pistol, and shot him in the head.

I bit my lip so hard I tasted blood. I wanted to cry out, but was also afraid of being shot like my father. My father didn’t fall to the ground immediately, it took him a moment, and when he did, he did it gently, sideways.

“’Who is the second Jew in charge?” asked the officer, raising his voice only slightly, as he holstered his gun. I didn’t know who answered him, because I took off running, leaving the milk.

Written by

Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.

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