Perle Besserman


My Bubbe Sarah was sixteen years old, living in Uman, in the Ukraine, when my Zayde Israel Tobachnikov came courting. She and her sister, Malka, were known for miles around as girls of uncommon beauty. They were blond and willowy and had ice-blue eyes, the color of the sky reflecting the sun off the Siberian snow. Though Sarah was one year older, you could have taken the sisters for twins. Both had the same high foreheads and cheekbones, the same flaxen hair and deep-set, ever-so-slightly-slanted blue eyes. People said that the Wortmann sisters had Tartar blood running through their veins, and maybe some Cossack blood, too. You didn't find full-blooded Jewish girls with such golden hair and blue eyes in Uman in those days. During Purim festivals, when congregants in the tiny synagogue were encouraged to celebrate Haman's downfall by getting so tipsy they could no longer read the Hebrew letters of the Megillah, a townsman might look up into the ladies' section and, pointing to the Wortmann sisters, whisper to his neighbor: "Their grandmother must have been raped by a Cossack. How else can you account for those goyish features?"

Bubbe Sarah's mother had died two years before, and her father, a simple day laborer, was bereft. Theirs had been a love match, which was unusual for those times. The family was poor, and there had never been enough coal to keep their one-room cottage warm, but that didn't stop Bubbe Sarah's parents from loving each other more deeply with every passing year. Their love, however, did not stop the cold from seeping into Bubbe Sarah's bones. All she could remember about her childhood was the cold, how it had crystallized inside her bit by bit, forming a hard icy crust around her spine. Unlike most girls her age, she had less interest in finding "true love" than in keeping warm. More than being wrapped in a lover's arms, Bubbe Sarah longed to be swathed in furs. And from early on, she knew that her beauty, which was fast becoming legendary, was all she had to effect the changes she wished for in her life. Peddlers and traveling matchmakers had spread word of the two beautiful Wortmann sisters beyond Uman's borders, and, as it happened in the Russian fairy tales their mother had told them, all the handsome eligible men for miles around were soon coming to call.

Israel, a logger and sometime fur trapper, was not particularly tall or handsome, but he'd made a fortune in the Siberian fur trade. Knowing that both wood and furs would keep her warm, Bubbe Sarah chose him of all her suitors to marry. Malka, who unlike Sarah, had never expected much in the way of romance, settled for a local tailor.

My grandmother had lived the life of a wealthy Siberian merchant's wife, with all that it entailed: a city house in Irkutsk and a country house on Lake Baikal, a droshkey big enough for the whole family to ride in that was converted into a sleigh in winter, along with a driver, a maid, and plenty of furs and jewels and beautiful clothes to wear to shul on holidays and when she was entertaining my grandfather's business associates. Then one day the Bolsheviks came and took away her things, and the family had to flee with only one trunk's worth of treasures--most important of which was the "tschainik," a round, heavy silver-alloy tea-kettle. When Bubbe Sarah came to America that was the first item she unpacked. She set the dented kettle on the stove, and there it sat; an emblem of the family's Siberian glory days and her tea-story legacy to her female descendants.

On Friday nights after supper, with the Sabbath candles flickering in their long silver candlesticks, Bubbe Sarah, my mother, and I would sit around the kitchen table with the Yiddish newspaper spread open before us, snapping the shells of sunflower and pumpkin seeds between our teeth and drinking tea from glasses stuffed with raspberry jam as my mother read the Yiddish stories out loud. After the last story had been read my mother and grandmother would start to recall their own adventures in Siberia and Palestine: how they had wandered across the oceans on leaky steamers to escape the Bolshevik hordes; how Bubbe Sarah had wanted to kill herself at having to leave Gertrude, her eldest daughter, behind. My beautiful grandmother's ice-blue eyes would fill with tears as my mother described her heroic older sister, the "justice-seeker" who had joined with the Bolsheviks to fight the workers' cause and been murdered at Babi Yar holding her seven-year-old daughter in her arms.

Since you couldn't light the stove on the Sabbath, the tschainik was filled to the brim with water before sunset on Friday and placed on a fireproof tin plate over the tiny flame on the stove's back burner. It took a long time for the water to boil this way, but that made Friday-night tea-telling stories all the more precious. I never cared for tea with jam, but I did like drinking it "Siberian-style," which Bubbe Sarah taught me how to do by taking a cube of sugar in her fingers, daintily dipping a corner of it into the tea, and biting into it before taking a sip.

A week after Zayde Israel died, Bubbe Sarah declared to the family that she was moving in with us because only in my parents' house could she be sure she'd be eating kosher and observing the Sabbath and Jewish holidays to the letter. Bubbe Sarah never struck me as being all that religious. When Zayde Israel was alive, she played the "observant wife," dressing up in her best hat and sealskin coat to go to shul on Saturdays and holidays, but despite three years of living in Palestine she'd never learned how to read the Hebrew in the prayer book, and every so often she'd forget and switch the light on or off in her room on Shabbos. You would think that Bubbe Sarah would have chosen to live with my mother's younger sister Ida, who wasn't too religious but "kept kosher." Ida was married to my reputedly "rich" uncle Harry, lived in an elegant single-family house facing Prospect Park, and had a maid named Mary who came in every day and made blueberry pancakes for breakfast. Harry drove a new Cadillac every year, which must have reminded Bubbe Sarah of her chauffeured droshkey, for she loved being driven around in my uncle's sleek gray-finned sedan. Still, she refused to move in with Ida no matter how much she begged her to. Bubbe Sarah made it very clear to the family that she preferred living with us in our three-room apartment in Bensonhurst. There she had determined to place her tschainik, and there she would stay.

On Wednesday nights, she would park herself in my dad's armchair in front of the television set, shouting in Yiddish for her favorite wrestler, Gorgeous George, to kill Ivan the Terrible, a massive hunk of ugly person in a fright wig. The rest of us hated wrestling, but Bubbe Sarah always got her way. She also dominated the radio on Sunday mornings, when WEVD, the Yiddish radio station, featured Tsores Bei Leiten ("People's Troubles")--a real-life domestic soap opera--which I particularly resented for interrupting the Sunday morning radio reading of the comics.

Except for Friday nights, Bubbe Sarah and I didn't talk to each other much. In keeping with family tradition, she had little use for girl children and preferred my kid brother. Larry learned early in life how to ingratiate himself with his non-English-speaking-live-in grandmother. All he had to do was serenade her with a little Yiddish song and she'd send him to her closet to fetch her black patent leather pocketbook. Then she'd pull out a dollar bill, and hand it to him with a big smile on her face. No dollar bills for girl grandchildren who hated wrestling and didn't sing Yiddish songs.

One cold Friday night after Bubbe Sarah had retired to her room, my mother and I were getting extra blankets out of the hall closet. Suddenly, we heard a loud bang coming from the screened off part of the living room that was converted nightly into my parents' bedroom. This was followed by screams from my brother, who'd been trapped while hiding under the sofa bed. Hearing his screams, Bubbe Sarah came running out of her bedroom barefoot, her topknot undone. Giving a huge heave-ho, my father lifted the bed. The next thing I knew, he was snatching one of the blankets out of my hands, wrapping my brother in it, and, followed by my mother, was rushing out the door to the car. Bubbe Sarah and I stood staring at each other for a few seconds before she began wailing and tearing at the wisps of hair escaping from her topknot. Here it was a Friday night and you weren't allowed to drive, and my father was driving the car in order to save my brother's life, which, my Tanach teacher at the yeshiva had told me, was permitted--even encouraged--by our Hebrew sages. "When a Jew has a choice," my teacher said, "he must choose life over everything else--even over the Law." (Like God, Jews collectively were always referred to as "he.") Fearful that Bubbe Sarah's screams would cause our neighbor to call the police, I started explaining to her about how Jewish law made it all right for my father to drive the car on the Sabbath because he was "choosing life." But that only made her scream louder. Now I not only had to deal with my guilt over wishing my brother dead so that my grandmother would at last start paying attention to me, but I'd gone and thrown her into a fit with my attempted explication of Jewish Law. I tried putting my arms around her and making her sit on the sofa, but she wrestled free of my grip and kept walking around in smaller and smaller circles in the middle of the living room. Before long, she'd worked herself up into a screaming frenzy. Afraid that she might have a stroke, I ran to the telephone and dialed Ida's number. Mary answered, saying that my mother had already called and that Harry and Ida were on their way to the hospital.

"Which hospital?"

"I don't know, honey--maybe Kings County."

I hung up and dialed Information for the Kings County Hospital emergency room number. When I got through, the nurse who answered said that she had been on duty for three hours and no one had come in with a bleeding toddler wrapped in a yellow blanket. I returned to the living room and waited for Bubbe Sarah to calm down on her own, or at least to run out of breath and stop screaming. Now she was sitting on the floor in a heap, just whimpering. I went to the refrigerator and wrapped some ice cubes in a dish towel, just in case she was preparing to faint. I'd heard that, in the old days back in Siberia, Bubbe Sarah would faint when things didn't go her way, or--according to my aunt Ida--she'd pretend to be about to faint. I didn't want to test the authenticity of her fainting, so I did what I'd seen my mother do when Bubbe Sarah claimed she felt dizzy: I rubbed the back of her neck with ice, but she pushed my hand away and moaned. Fortunately, my parents returned just then, with my brother wrapped in the bloodstained yellow blanket. They had gone to Maimonedes Hospital, not Kings County. Larry's cheek, just under his right eye, was covered with bandages, and he was fast asleep, probably knocked out from the anesthetic or whatever the doctor had given him.

"Thank God it didn't hit the eye," my mother said as soon as she walked in. I was grateful to her for notifying me indirectly that I wasn't to blame for what happened, even if I did occasionally harbor jealous thoughts about my brother for being a boy, and, therefore, the adored center of my boy-crazy grandmother's life. Yet some perverted devil inside of me wouldn't stop grumbling about how Bubbe Sarah would never have gotten as hysterical if it had been me pinned under the bed instead of Larry.

"He's had four stitches," my father said. That started Bubbe Sarah wailing all over again, until my mother explained to her in a soft voice in Yiddish that he didn't mean that the doctor had stitched the baby's eye closed. At this point the conversation grew so disgustingly similar to the dialogue in a Tsores Bei Leiten drama, that I had to leave the room. I headed for the kitchen to wring out the sopping towel containing the melting ice cubes. I walked slowly, hoping to hear a word of praise from my grandmother. But Bubbe Sarah didn't once mention my name during the whole time she and my mother were talking.

Recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha'ananim Artists' Colony in Jerusalem, Pushcart Prize-nominee Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the "clarity and feeling for mystic lore" of her writing and by Publisher's Weekly for its "wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart." Her autobiographical novel Pilgrimage was published by Houghton Mifflin, and her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, AGNI, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, and Bamboo Ridge, among others.

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