Not for the Sabbath

That Sabbath afternoon, the talk on the porch happened to be about teachers, tutors, and cheder boys. Our neighbor Chaya Riva complained that her grandchild got such a slap in the face from his teacher Michael that he lost a tooth. Michael had a reputation not only as an accomplished teacher but also as a big slapper and pincher. Cheder boys used to say that when he pinched, you saw the city of Krakow. He had a nickname—Scratch Me. If he felt an itch on his back, he gave his whipping stick to one of his pupils, with an order to scratch him under his shirt.

Two other women were sitting on our porch—Reitze Breindels and my Aunt Yentl, who wore a bonnet and a dress with arabesques in honor of the Sabbath. The bonnet had many beads and four ribbons—yellow, white, red, and green. I sat there and listened to the talk. Aunt Yentl began to smile and look around. She gave me a side glance. “Why do you sit among the women?” she asked. “Better go and study the ‘Ethics of the Fathers.’ ”

I understood that she was about to tell a story an eleven-year-old boy should not hear. I went behind the porch to the storage room, where we kept the Passover dishes, a barrel with torn books, and a pillowcase filled with my father’s old manuscripts. The walls had wide cracks, and every word spoken on the porch could be heard. I sat on an oak mortar that was used to grind matzo meal. Through the cracks the sun reflected the colors of the rainbow in the floating dust. I heard my Aunt Yentl say, “In the little villages things are not so terrible yet. How many madmen can you find in a small town? Five or ten—not more. Besides, their crimes cannot be kept secret. But in a big city evil deeds can remain hidden for years. When I lived in Lublin, a man by the name of Reb Yissar Mandlebroit had a drygoods store that sold silk, velvet, and satin, as well as laces and accessories. His first wife died and he married a young wench, the daughter of a butcher. Her hair was the color of fire and she had the mouth of a shrew. From his first wife Reb Yissar had married children, but with this new one—her name was Dosha—he had only one, a boy named Yankele. He took after his mother in looks, with red sidelocks and blue shining eyes like little mirrors. In that family, Dosha was the boss. When an old man marries a young piece of flesh, she is the ruler.

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