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Tale 11 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston

Flight

 

What a tale it made!! Years passed and still the gossip did not die. Perhaps it was the drama of the thing-the spirit that Handas and her daughter Eidel had shown warmed the heart, even when winter snow blanketed Belarus. Perhaps the women of David-Horodok just liked to remind the men, "Don't take us for granted." Or maybe the simple fact was that no one liked Nachum the Razor-Tongued, not even the men, so everyone enjoyed taking his story off the shelf and blowing its dust in his holier-than-thou face.

Nachum of course stomped out the door whenever Eidel was mentioned, usually followed by amused titterings. The scene had to be repeated often because referring to her was the only sure way to cut short one of his fulsome condemnations of Jewish sins, once he had gotten himself really worked up. The Slonimer rov thought this constant dredging up of his humiliating fiasco would have taught Nachum a little humbleness over the years, but soul-learning had never been the man's strong point.

Nachum's great memory of Torah and Talmud had long ago seduced him into thinking he understood God's demands of human beings better than anyone else, and in truth even the rabbis had trouble arguing points of law with him. "However being a scholar and being a mensch are not the same thing," the Slonimer rov was heard to mumble to himself after these encounters, along with the suspicion that "it was probably a Nachum who inspired the saying, 'Prayer and learning are not enough; to be a Jew you have to do something for the world.'" Then people would hear the rabbi sigh and ask God to bless Eidel and Handas wherever they were, obviously regretting they had ever gotten mixed up with such a man.

To the Slonimer rov Eidel had been, and for all he knew still was, a child of the wind. She was equally as insubstantial, equally as changeable, and equally as beautiful as the wisps of cloud that flew over David-Horodok in front of the summer wind. With headlong laughter, she plunged into one delight after another-not fleshpot pleasures but delights God, blessed be His name, must have made for His own enjoyment: chasing butterflies, calling to birds, playing games of jacks and dominoes. Never cross, she fitted herself to any situation, and thus floated through the world, making herself into one thing for one person and changing again for another. Such a one needed a husband's guidance of course, but gentle guidance, for a harsh wind would tear her apart. The rov had seen at the time of her birth that here was one not created for hardness, and hoped that her beauty would earn her the protection of a rich, indulgent husband.

To Eidel's infinite misfortune the Slonimer rov was not her father; Gavril the Grunter was. A blacksmith used to melting and pounding even the most unforgiving metal into shape, Gavril noticed no difference between a workhorse and a thoroughbred. To him all horses were beasts meant to be shod and used by man, as were women.

Gavril's wife Handas had given him ten children, kept his house and run a little store as well, and he never considered this noteworthy. That was what Jewish women did-helped men to live, study and administer the community. Of course, if Gavril had never had a word of praise for his wife, he had never had a harsh one either. In fact he rarely had a word at all, for Handas or anyone else; that was how he had earned his name "the Grunter." A dour mule, he plowed ahead, eyes focused on the ground. So it was not surprising that Eidel stretched Gavril's tolerance.

"She sings constantly, and jokes, and runs through the shtetl as if life were some big game and not the serious business it is. How will she ever survive in the world?" he had once asked his wife.

"She's like a cat," his wife replied, surprised at his sudden interest in their youngest child. "She always lands with her feet on the ground, so never you mind. All will be well."

Gavril grunted his displeasure, unconvinced, and returned to his silence. He continued to leave Eidel to Handas, who seemed to adore the child although she did not necessarily understand the girl's untamed ways either, and kept to his smithing. Blessed with Gavril's total neglect, Eidel prospered-picking flowers, roaming the hillsides, watching the steamships leave for romantic ports-and dreamed of rich, loving husbands who would take her to exotic places. Her beauty was such that no one in David-Horodok considered this unlikely; they might even have called her an Objet d'art if they had known the expression. Townsfolk envied her parents because with a little imagination and effort, Eidel's family could make a brilliant match. However God had not blessed Gavril with imagination.

 

"Without even contacting a shadchan, much less discussing the matter with me, you have promised our daughter in marriage! How could you! How dare you!" For the first time in her married life anger overcame Handas, fueled not only by her husband's present insulting behavior but by the pent-up leavings of years of frustration.

"Nachum is a scholar; he is already too good for her. If Nachum's fool enough to marry Eidel, why should I pay a matchmaker to bring me less?"

 

Eidel sat on the bench of the dining table weeping without stop. Nachum was not her idea of the perfect husband.

"How do you know this is the best match your daughter can make if you have not tried to find another?" Handas proceeded logically, if at the top of her vocal range. By now much of David-Horodok had gathered in front of the house to hear. Handas had never even raised her voice before; what could the trouble be?

"Woman, this girl you have reared is good for nothing-not cooking, not sewing. She is even too slight to be much good at bearing children. Can't my own eyes see her worthlessness? If Nachum will take her, I'll be rid of a burden. Then he can pay to have her do nothing." Gavril's long speech vented his own anger; feeling better, he turned his back on both women and left.

The entire town immediately recognized the stupidity of the match. Nachum was indeed a scholar, and intended to remain one. Where was the living to come from? A scholar's wife carried the whole burden of the family income on her shoulders, as well as the burden of raising the children. Eidel carry a family on her back? Eidel wouldn't know where to begin.

Gavril listened to the reasoning of his neighbors and the arguments and pleadings of his wife and children for one whole day. Then he issued his final statement: "Eidel needs discipline, a no-nonsense husband to teach her behavior proper for a Jewish wife. Nachum is such a person. She will marry Nachum. Now there will be no more words."

Always before Handas had obeyed her husband's dogmatic decrees, but not this time; Eidel was too dear to her. Handas had gifted Eidel the free and carefree youth she had always wanted. To see Eidel happy lifted Handas' heart. To see Eidel's beauty made Handas sing. Handas the plowhorse had produced a champion. She who had received so little from life had been allowed to give the priceless gift of joy to her daughter. Eidel's gratitude bonded them in unshatterable love.

As her forth-coming marriage loomed larger, Eidel dwindled. Her laughter fled; her steps plodded; her eyes reddened with tears. Nachum tormented Eidel with his incessant instructions on her religious and moral obligations. Every day seemed to bring ten more rules for her to obey; each rule pressed down on her further.

"Listen to me! I know your head is full of feathers, but so are all women's." Eidel endured the insult. "If other women can learn proper behavior, so can you. You are not to sing again, ever, even in our house, even in the middle of the night. It is unseemly; you never know who might be listening."

"I know I can't sing in front of men, but if I am in our house in the middle of the night, isn't it the man's fault that he is listening?"

"Women are the seducers, not innocent men who for one reason or another find themselves on the street at night." Eidel sighed despondently. "You will bring shame on yourself and me if you don't improve your attitude, and I cannot permit that. Laxity is exactly how you've gotten such a bad reputation in the town! You're lucky I'm willing to teach you."

Handas, who heard these last comments from the kitchen, could barely keep herself from taking her pot and whacking Nachum. She began slamming things around instead. She was not aware that Eidel had any bad reputation in the town except among the ultra-religious, whom she considered moral prigs.

Nachum responded to Handas' rattling indirectly. "During Passover, we will not be able to come into your parent's home because of your mother's sloppy housekeeping. We cannot risk any hometz that is accidentally left lying around!" The rattling got louder.

 

Nachum raised his voice. "And I think it would be best if my mother stayed in the house for the first few years after we're married to show you how to clean properly."

Eidel looked at him with terror. His mother was a shrew. Tears began to fall down her cheeks, prompting Nachum to tighten his mouth and stomp out. Damn! His attacks on Handas for her opposition to him never worked out the way he expected. He hadn't even been serious about his mother; he didn't want her living with him any more than Eidel did.

As these interminable sessions continued, the whole town began to wonder whether Eidel would last until her wedding. No one doubted that the marriage would kill her. "Such a shame," they whispered to each other with sad foreboding.

To see the delight of her life so reduced increased Handas' already intense resistance to the marriage. She nagged at her husband constantly as the days and weeks dragged on. She complained threateningly, then intelligently, then vigorously, then piteously. She was willing to do anything to stop the wedding. She would even have refused to speak to Gavril ever again, except that that would have suited him admirably.

"Eidel has the right to refuse any match," Handas argued.

"This is the only match I am making." Gavril replied. "If she turns Nachum down, I will turn her out of my house and she will find a husband on her own.".

 

"Eidel does not love him. See how she cries. You are killing our daughter!"

"I am killing her silliness and stupidity, nothing more. If you hadn't let her run wild all these years, I wouldn't have to."...

 

"If you do this, I'll leave you."

"Good. Then at least I'll have peace. And remember, you'll starve to death for your efforts."..

 

Finally Handas, desperate, announced that she had no intention of preparing any food or clothing for the wedding. Nor would she welcome the guests. If Gavril was holding this wedding, he was doing it on his own. At the very least she would make a fool out of him in front of the whole town, and humiliate Nachum in the bargain. With this threat, Gavril finally lost control and began beating Handas. Being a strong man, he broke her nose, fractured two ribs and produced welts and bruises all over her body. He also produced complete silence in his house, forever.

Things seemed to settle down after Gavril had made his wishes so clear. Although Handas and Eidel discussed nothing further with him, Handas began to work feverishly on the wedding. As she spent lavishly on clothing, pots, pans and bedding, Eidel's spirits even seemed to improve. Gavril grumbled to himself about the extravagance, but kept his mouth shut since he wanted no more trouble. And silence was his most comfortable state anyway.

On the day of the wedding, Handas banned everyone from the house except her daughters and daughters-in-law, insisting that they and they alone would prepare Eidel for her doom. Gavril in particular stayed hidden, not wanting to upset anything at the last minute. He had even managed a good mood by Tuesday evening; in a few short hours his life would return to normal.

Gavril waited outside his home as the groom's procession, alight with candles, made its way to his house to veil the bride. Nachum was in a spectacular mood. He had been preparing for weeks to deliver the accustomed lecture to the bride on her duties and responsibilities. He relished the opportunity to demonstrate to Eidel and the assembled town what a pious and erudite khossen she was getting. At the same time his scholarship would embarrass Handas for her opposition to the wedding. He would lead his bride to the chupah in triumph.

Before Nachum made it to the chupah, however, a small obstacle had to be overcome. For when Gavril led the groom into his house Nachum discovered there was no bride there, and no future mother-in-law to embarrass either. Eidel and Handas had left David-Horodok for the city-for which city no one seemed to know-and they had taken all the presents Handas had bought the new couple. The two women intended to start their lives over without either Gavril or Nachum.

Gavril was furious. He threatened to kill his daughters and daughters-in-law, who had obviously been part of the conspiracy. Their husbands objected. He threatened to kill Handas and Eidel, but when he tried to rent a horse to follow them, he mysteriously found none available. As his wrath cooled Gavril finally fathomed that much of the town had previously guessed what Handas was up to and approved. Handas had been well liked and wife-beating to most was a crime of great enormity.

Gavril immediately divorced Handas, but then found the energy only to sit in his house and brood on ingratitude and his lost savings. His other nine children, who considered him solely responsible for the loss of their mother and sister, were content to let him sit. Thus Gavril was left in the solitude he had always demanded. Everybody said they hoped he enjoyed it, but they didn't sound very sincere.

Nachum eventually married a thin-lipped, severe woman, a spotless housekeeper familiar with every religious obligation in Judaism, an endless producer of children and a so-so businesswoman. She was proud to be the wife of a scholar, and kept Nachum fed, if not well, and drove him on in his studies to the greater glory of God. He returned the favor with critical encouragement that pointed out her every failing. Together they reached for perfection.

David-Horodokers thought they fit together well, and were glad they had married each other and not made two other people miserable. The Slonimer rov could only shake his head.

 


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