“Ouch!” he said, louder than intended. A small drop of blood appeared on Eli Vakhtman’s right thumb. He stood up quickly to get a piece of paper towel in the back of the store. Fortunately, there were no customers in the store—to hear Eli’s rather loud exclamation of pain or to witness his mishap or to see the blood. Of course, such minor accidents happened all the time; they couldn’t be helped. But what proprietor would want customers to see them? And blood in a garment store could never be good for business.
And, truth be told, Eli should not have been sewing an outfit for his younger daughter Rosa at his work place. Sure, he was the owner of Vakhtman’s Ladies’ Garments, but the store was for the sale of ladies’ garments, not those of little girls. And Eli had left the tailoring profession years ago to open this establishment at considerable risk. He didn’t really want to be sewing at all anymore, even for his daughter.
The small sewing room at the back of the store was well equipped, but it was designated for minor alterations, such as mending, sewing cuffs and hems and the like that he did for customers. Eli knew he shouldn’t have been using it for sewing a dress for Rosa. Still, she would look adorable in its plaid pleats. They would swirl nicely as Rosa spun around the room, something she loved to do, especially when her papa was watching. A regular spinning top, my little Rosa, he smiled, as he looked down at the thumb. He’d have to check the bathroom cabinet for Band-Aids. Did he keep any on the premises? He really needed to think of these things in advance … before disaster struck.
“I’ll be right with you,” Eli called out to a customer, hearing the front doorbell ring. Of course, it would be just his luck to have a customer at the most inopportune time. The bleeding had stopped, but a bright red spot stained the towel. Eli would have to disguise or hide it altogether so the customer wouldn’t see it.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. How can I help you?” Eli asked a slim, tall, and neatly addressed young woman—the very sort whose patronage he couldn’t afford to lose.
“Good afternoon. Yes, I’d like to see your negligees,” she responded, without a moment’s hesitation or lowering her gaze. Eli gestured for the young woman to follow him and walked towards the section where they were on display. Negligees were at the “outer edges” of what Vakhtman’s Ladies’ Garments carried; their focus was on undergarments—bras, panties, girdles, of every conceivable style and for every conceivable body shape. But Eli wanted his business to do more than just provide the basics for every woman. And so he slowly branched out to include negligees, housecoats, robes, dressing gowns—garments that weren’t, strictly speaking, “undergarments” but were quite a distance from “outerwear” or even casual wear. If his shop were to succeed, he’d have to be flexible, open to the needs and wants of his customers, even to foresee them before they themselves realized what they were.
This customer looked like she knew what she wanted … and how to get it. After she murmured “thank you” and slipped into the dressing room just a few feet away, in the back of the store, Eli responded “Just let me know if I can be of further assistance.” While she was trying on the merchandise, Eli returned to the matter of his pricked finger. Fortunately, there were Band-Aids in the medicine cabinet. Eli didn’t have to worry. So why did he?
Some probably found it unseemly that a man was the proprietor of a women’s undergarment store. But Eli had no such qualms. He saw a need and aimed to fill it. He had to make a living somehow. Eli’s clients were usually younger women or at least ones with no qualms about being served on their underwear shopping expeditions by a bearded man. Some of them were far from young, in fact. they even took joy in asking him back into the dressing room for assistance. Some clearly flirted with him, gazing at him several seconds too long or asking him for help with or explanation of certain garments when none were at all necessary. Eli wasn’t exactly “happy” to oblige, but he saw no way out of it. He was running a professional enterprise, after all. It was all for the sake of the business, his means of providing for his family.
Eli thought about hiring a female assistant, but there really wasn’t the budget for it. He ran the numbers every which way, but they just didn’t add up. He wished his wife Ida could have been a partner in the business, the way his friend Arnold’s wife, Myrna was in their family business. If Ida wouldn’t be a partner, Eli wished she could at least be in the store to help him every now and again. He knew how beneficial it would be to have a female presence in the store.
Despite repeated entreaties, Ida refused. Well, not refused exactly. That would have been too … emphatic, too decisive for Ida. She merely shrugged her shoulders and looked down. That was just Ida’s way. She might as well have refused him outright. Eli knew how shy Ida was, timid really. She didn’t like to get out of the house. The noise of the traffic, both human and vehicular, startled her. Strangers frightened her.
Ida only went to the market, and even then only reluctantly, because she was never pleased with what Eli brought home. The produce he bought was either too ripe or not ripe enough. “Can’t you see? It’s not ripe!” she would say tapping this or that melon or even apples or heads of lettuce. And she was particular about the non-perishables, too. “His” cereal was too sugary; “his” olive oil was not the freshest; “his” tuna fish was too oily. As if indeed these products were of his making!
On certain days, Ida would put aside her misgivings and ask Eli to go to market. Eli never could predict which days Ida would select to ask him to do the shopping. There was never any advance warning. She would suddenly appear before him with a shopping list written in her childlike hand. Still, he knew not to push back. He complied without a word, accepting the list. When he returned from the grocery store, Ida opened the bags, wrinkled her nose ever so slightly, and predictably shook her head.
“Why did you ask me to go?” Eli might have asked.
But there was no point to posing such a question; it would only have produced silence or a shrug. Besides, Eli knew the answer. Those were the days when Ida just couldn’t get out of the house, couldn’t face the crowds, the noise, the unease that overtook her when she was out of the confines of her home. Those were days when Ida had to content herself with what Eli purchased from the market. It was either that or they would go hungry. Or rather Eli would, since Ida ate like a bird. Was that the expression? Like a skinny one, in any case. He’d seen crows on telephone wires and rooftops that had more meat on their bones than Ida did and surely had greater appetites. So Eli went to market at her beckoning and without protest at her dissatisfaction that inevitably followed inspection of his purchases. It was just another of the hallmarks of their marriage. A ritual, so to speak.
Of course, Ida helping out in the shop was really out of the question and always had been. Even if she could make it there, how would she interact with the customers? The store’s success depended on a helpful, confident interaction with strangers. Ida would be nervous, her nerves literally shot by the time they got home. He’d have to wait for his daughters Rosa and Mindl to grow up and help him out in the store. Well, he should say, Mindl and Rosa, since Mindl was the older of the two. Still, he couldn’t stop thinking that a feminine touch at Vakhtman’s Ladies’ Garments, now not years from now, would be beneficial. It was an obsession for him, if one rarely verbalized, or even articulated in his mind, a cloud of absence hovering. If only … then there’d be more customers, more satisfied ones.
“Will that be all, ma’am?” he asked the young woman, who’d brought several items up to the register. As he’d correctly predicted when she’d first entered, the customer had made some fine purchases—negligees that were filmy in fabric, creamy in color. He knew that both she and the special someone in her life would be pleased, although he didn’t allow himself to think about her wearing it. That would be going too far. Eli prided himself on his professionalism, after all. And his customers did, too.
“Yes, thank you very much. A friend of mine told me you have a great selection. I’ll have to tell her I completely agree,” she said. Eli thanked her again. A satisfied customer was a return customer; that was one of the foundational maxims of retail.
After the young woman left, Eli returned to sewing the dress for Rosa. He wasn’t surprised that Arnold and Myrna crept into his thoughts today. They were on his mind, however much he didn’t want them to be. Or, at least, Arnold was. At Arnold’s invitation, Eli recently attended a meeting to discuss the founding of a new synagogue to be called Haverim Ahuvim. There was considerable interest among the attendees, and it looked like the synagogue was going to be established. In fact, “discuss” might have been stretching the agenda of the meeting since Arnold made clear from the outset that he had every intention of establishing the synagogue with himself at the helm. At its heart, a synagogue is a collective enterprise, but Arnold let it be known that not all voices were going to have an equal say. The question was who was going to go along with him. And judging by the approval, the excitement even, it was clear that most, perhaps all of those in attendance, were. There was no dissent expressed, no concerns even raised.
Except for Eli. He simply couldn’t contain his astonishment. Arnold was going to establish a synagogue without appointing a rabbi! And this was going to be an Orthodox congregation, no less. If congregants had questions, they could ask them of Yehudah Ariel, the principal of Torah and Midot Academy, the nearby day school. But “Rabbi” Ariel did not have the legal authority to rule on halakhic questions since he was not ordained. How could a congregation function without a leader? Who would give sermons? Who would preside over births, berit milot, weddings, funerals, and other life cycle occasions? Arnold had been typically dismissive, saying it would be a “synagogue without a rabbi.” Is that even really a synagogue? Eli wondered. Why was Arnold skirting the rules? No, more to the point, why was Arnold flouting tradition?
“Why are we building it so close to the Sheloshah Devarim yeshiva? It won’t be able to stand up to it,” Eli asked at the meeting.
Arnold pounced on Eli’s admittedly somewhat misspoken “able to stand up to it,” repeating it almost sarcastically, saying the new synagogue wouldn’t be “standing up” to it at all, that they were targeting different audiences entirely. Even though Arnold didn’t have a building in mind yet, he insisted that the synagogue had to be located in this neighborhood, not far from the yeshivah. The yeshivah served scholars, and the synagogue would serve ordinary Jews or workers. Arnold had even talked about comrades coming together. Or something along those lines. Eli couldn’t remember the exact words. He should ask Sheldon Shapiro for the minutes.
Comrades! As if Arnold were invoking the socialist spirit that had swept through the shtetl of their childhood. Yes, the very same spirit that had landed Arnold’s older brother Max in prison and caused their family and the shtetl itself such hardship. Next thing you know he’d be quoting Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg. Who was Arnold to be invoking socialism? With his thriving car service, known for its discretion and punctuality, Arnold was about as capitalist as they come. Who was Arnold to speak of equality and brotherhood? What did he know about either of those concepts? Eli knew the theories of Rosa Luxemburg better than Arnold … or Max, for that matter. Or at least, he had known. It’d been years since he’d studied them. Was Arnold going to give his “brothers” equal say in his synagogue. Fat chance! He barely tolerated Eli’s questions at the meeting.
And then there was the matter of the Sheloshah Devarim yeshivah. This new synagogue may well be aiming for a different audience, but it would inevitably be compared to the yeshivah. Established so near each other—the synagogue would necessarily fall short next to that bastion of selective Talmudic excellence. Who knows? Maybe Arnold wouldn’t be able to find or build a building in this neighborhood? Maybe he’d had have to look further afield? Eli didn’t want to hear those comparisons, didn’t want to be reminded, whether explicitly by others or by his own self-nagging, that with his mastery of the sacred texts and their commentaries in his youth, he should have been a rebi in that yeshiva, instead of selling underwear to women.
And if the synagogue was established in this neighborhood, how could they, a motley crew of baale-bayit hope to draw members or financial support? Well, the individuals around that table hadn’t been that motley, but not all of them were of substantial means. Surely, Arnold’s funds and membership dues wouldn’t be enough to support the congregation indefinitely?
Or maybe they would be. Arnold was always offering to help Eli and Ida out if they needed it. He always sent Mindl and Rosa checks for their birthdays. Ida intercepted the checks and gave them to Eli to deposit in their names. For their education. If the checks had been for himself and Ida, he would have certainly have declined them. For the girls, he’d accept Eli’s checks. Not that he was happy about them. But if it had been up to him, he would returned the checks to Arnold unopened, whether for the girls or not.
In making a such a point of handing the checks to Eli to deposit, Ida was telling him that returning the checks would not be tolerated. He’d have to swallow his pride … or … . Having the girls spend their birthday checks on girlish items—dolls, toys, baubles—was similarly not an option. Ida insisted that they be deposited in the bank in their name for the future. Not even college specifically, just the future. Or rather, as a bulwark against some as yet unknown catastrophe.
But, of course, that wasn’t it, really. Not at all. Eli knew that Arnold looked down on him, that he found Eli’s owning and selling underwear to women without assistance of an unimpeachable matron of some kind more than a little unseemly. Not that Eli blamed him really since he too found it unseemly … or, at least, unsettling. What has become of you? You, my friend, who outshone me in heder? He could see these thoughts in Arnold’s eyes. He knew Arnold too well, however far apart they might have drifted in recent years.
And Eli knew the synagogue would be established exactly to Arnold’s specifications. Rabbi-less and in the shadow of a renowned yeshivah and all. Arnold got his way.
***Maybe Myrna would have a say.
Rosa was delighted with her new plaid dress.
“Thank you, Papa! It’s beautiful!” she exclaimed without prompting from Ida, who hovered in the background. Just as Eli predicted, Rosa gave a twirl three times. And then somewhat dizzily, she wobbled to her father to embrace him and kiss him on the cheek. Eli sank happily back into his comfortable chair as Rosa skipped away. Mindl was nowhere to be seen. Was it his imagination or did she always make herself scarce when he came home? No, it couldn’t be. He would have to remember to get Mindl something soon. Ida told him he spoiled Rosa. But Eli couldn’t help himself.
Eli heard Rosa singing in the next room as Ida prepared dinner. He never told Ida he also named their youngest daughter for Rosa Luxemburg. He always said she was named for his grandmother Rosa. And she was, but not just for Eli’s grandmother. Also for the woman who stood up for the downtrodden, however ambivalent she was about the “Jewish” struggle. Maybe that’s why Rosa was so special. Such a light that girl had.
He shouldn’t have let Arnold bother him. Arnold liked to be the big shot. That’s what he’d always been. No matter that Eli far outshone him in learning, Arnold was always in charge. When the boys would tease him about being the teacher’s favorite (they didn’t use the word “pet” Over There), Arnold defended him.
Once, when walking along the river, Eli was surrounded by a gang of peasant youth. They forced him onto to his knees. One of them pulled out his penis and urinated all over him. Eli remembered the feel of that hot stench in his hair and on his clothes. “Now you really are a dirty Jew!” Eli heard the friend of the ringleader shout and his friends laughing and clapping in response.
All that was bad enough. But worse might have happened. But suddenly Arnold and Kalmen, another youth from the shtetl appeared with stones and sticks (or was it sticks and stones?) and pelted them. The peasant youths fled. Eli hurried home and bathed, relieved after removing his soiled clothes, emblems of his shame. Fortunately, no one was home. He’d figure out a way of washing them without his mother finding out. The shame would be temporary, cleansed away. Or would it? The soapy water that enveloped him that had seemed so soothing only moments before suddenly seemed inadequate. As his hand trailed across the top of the tub’s water, Eli realized he didn’t even catch a glimpse of the peasant youth’s uncircumcised penis. He’d always been curious to see one. But they made Eli keep his eyes and head lowered as the ringleader urinated on him.
So yes Arnold had rescued him. Well, never again. Now Eli was in charge of his own destiny. Or had Arnold, in fact, rescued him? Perhaps Arnold and Kalmen actually held back and witnessed Eli’s humiliation from the veil of the trees? Why had it taken them so long to rescue Eli? Eli would never know. That was the thing with Arnold. You just never knew. And was Eli really in charge of his own destiny? Was his voice listened to, his opinions heeded? Bitterly, he thought again of Arnold’s blithe dismissal of his concerns regarding the synagogue.
Supper was nearly ready. Chicken cutlets, he could tell. They were going to be delicious. Ida had worked her magic with the ingredients he’d brought home from the market earlier in the week. Maybe she’d notice his Band-Aid; maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe he could take it off before dinner. Eli headed to the bathroom to wash up and to check. Soon he’d call his daughters down for supper. Once Ida gave the signal, that is.
Eli hoped Rosa would wear her new plaid dress to the dinner table. He hoped Ida hadn’t told her to take it off. Either way, he would share this meal with his loved ones. For the rest of the evening, Eli wouldn’t allow himself to think about Arnold … or his synagogue. As for tomorrow or the days that followed, he couldn’t say.
But Eli still had to get through this night. He decided he wouldn’t take a bath. He would be unclean until the morning. He knew that if he were to bathe, he would think about Arnold and that the rescue … and the bath of long ago. No, he would go to bed directly after dinner. Another hope: he would locate a path into the blankness of sleep. And yet another: he would find respite from dreams … and memories … and Arnold.