Daniel Shapiro is author of Child with a Swan’s Wings (2018) and the translator of Roberto Ransom’s Missing Persons, Animals, and Artists (2018). He is a Distinguished Lecturer at The City College of New York. This story is included in his collection "The Winged Aureole" (in progress).
As Elke beats the flour-and-egg mixture in the bowl to make blintzes for Esther’s birthday celebration, lulled by the rhythm of the whisk fluffing the batter, her thoughts drift to earlier times, to the day she arrived with Abe at Ellis Island, nearly thirty years before.
They’d taken that trip (her first ever out of the shtetl) in the summer of ’95, it was August, humid and sticky, though the rest was mostly a blur as they traveled by train, Trisk to Hamburg, crossing borders and cities in between, then two weeks in steerage on the S.S. Bohemia. A rough passage, to be sure, the bunks crowded, infernally hot, the food inedible, treyf, or even rotten, people retching openly before her, it was farshtunken, what a smell. That Romanian woman in the corner babbling and raising her hands to Heaven, as the ship lurched side to side. When it was calm, usually in the evening, Elke stole to the deck for some air or to glimpse the first stars. Abe slept soundly inside her shawl, through everything—a miracle to be sure—except when he was hungry. She’d find a corner, unbutton her shirtwaist, and offer him her breast. He drank eagerly and she felt proud of him—this soon-to-be American son.
It was a long time since she’d last seen Mordecai, her dear Max. She remembered the dawn he left the cramped hut they called home, carrying the satchel she’d packed with cold meat and schmaltz on bread, a flask of slivovitz to keep him warm.
She reflected on her husband—marveling again how he’d finagled it. Max was a carpenter by trade, working mostly in the shtetl—repairing houses, building furniture, tables and chairs, for Jews living there—but sometimes also for gentiles outside it—merchants who passed by as he was banging nails on wall-planks or roofs, and hired him to work for them, too. That allowed him to make connections he’d need to get a passport, and later, ones for her and Abie too.
But as they both knew, his position was still precarious, as it was for all Jews in the shtetl. After the pogroms some years before, sparked by the Czar’s assassination, he saw the coming storm. On top of everything, all the indignities suffered since then, the current Czar’s army was now calling up Jews. So months earlier, they’d both decided, he should leave the Pale for America, before the officers came for him. He would travel to Kiev and then across Austria-Hungary, and on to Germany; in Bremen or Hamburg, he’d stow away on a steamer that was New York-bound.
She remembered that dawn of his departure again, intensely, how he’d looked into her eyes, taking her hands: “Vart oyf mayn briv. Await my letter from the golden land.”
The golden land. . . golden as blintz dough sizzling in the pan, that’s how they’ll be soon after she pours the liquid in. Her daughter’s favorite dish; just the thought of them makes her mouth water. Even so, she can’t help remembering another meal, bitter, during those last weeks in Trisk. . . .
That evening, she was preparing a little vetshere, stirring barley-and vegetable soup in the iron pot hanging over the fire, occasionally glancing at Abe’s cradle swinging from the beams, dipping a spoon into the mixture and raising it to her lips. All of a sudden she heard a rumbling; the wooden implement flew out of her hand and then the knocking began, louder and louder, more violent till she got up and cracked open the door. Three Cossacks now stood in front of her, unmistakable in their peaked fleece caps, their long blue tunics, scabbards draped across their torsos; arms crossed over their chests in an arrogant pose. She’d sometimes seen them patrolling on horseback near the market as she haggled for potatoes. She’d kept her head lowered those times: Max had warned her about their fearful jindhal swords that, at the slightest provocation, could slice off a hand or pierce a heart with a single thrust.
The one in front pushed her aside and the three stormed in, drew their swords and began waving them around. “And your husband?” the tallest one asked in crude Russian. She just shook her head. They searched the room with their blades, pushing things aside with their boots, turning over garments, papers, rugs; finally giving up on what they were looking for, they started moving toward the door. Then the last one turned and with an arc of his gleaming jindhal, slashed the cradle’s ropes with two swift strokes, sending it crashing to the floor. The three glared back at her with a promise to return. Moments later, she heard their shouts and the neighing of horses dying away. She couldn’t stop trembling. Abe was crying but seemed unharmed. She took him out and cradled him tight, tight as she could, cooing him back to sleep with shushing sounds.
Two months later, she received Max’s letter: It was the first of others that would follow, filled with details of his trip—reaching Brody, in Austria-Hungary, where he hid in a shack with other Jews for nearly a week till they were forced to flee, running across a cornfield toward the German frontier; then the trip to Berlin, and finally Bremen where he boarded ship. To his surprise, he got the chance to use his skills, a lucky happenstance that all began when the carpenter was reviewing the quarters below deck and came upon Max repairing the ramp leading down to steerage (a task he took upon himself so his fellow passengers wouldn’t trip); impressed, he hired him on the spot for the rest of the crossing.
After disembarking at Ellis Island, and the tedious processing there, he made his way to the Lower East Side; he soon found a room above a haberdashery on Orchard Street. Through word of mouth, he scrounged up jobs doing repairs in tenements, painting store signs, refurbishing chairs and tables found on scrap heaps near his room. His luckiest break came from an immigrant aid society, which found him work as an apprentice in a glass and mirror shop, on the corner of Eldridge and Essex streets, a job that would prove to be his salvation and allow him to save enough to send for her and Abe.
“This year in Amerike!”: his concluding words in his final letter. Elke repeated that glorious phrase to the women in the marketplace, some of whom blushed with excitement as she read; and then later to her own parents when she visited them for Shabbos dinner. Her father was stoic—“it’s the will of Hashem”—but her mother was tearful, no doubt realizing her daughter and grandson would soon be leaving; it could be goodbye forever. Elke hugged her, wiping away a tear as she left them that evening.
She also felt stoic about Max’s absence but sometimes fear and then longing set in. She was too young to be alone without her husband, caring for their child all by herself, though her parents sometime pitched in and watched him while she went to market. Still, she kept up a good front, with the belief that such fortitude would carry her through in the end, toward their future in America, where she was bound.
Four months after that last letter, nearly eight months since his departure, came the tickets for their passage. “Sell everything,” said the attached note in rough script. “See You Ellis Island. Zayt gezunt. Hit zikh. Be healthy, be safe.”
Anticipation as the ship steamed toward port. . . . And now a different kind of waiting before Max and their kinder arrive from their stroll in Prospect Park, and she fills the pancake shells with farmer cheese, tucks them into the cast-iron pan, where they’ll brown and expand. . . .. They grow so quickly—children, too: after Abe, the next was Estherel—the first born in the new land—then came Gussie, Pincus, finally Schiffra. . . A distant foghorn and she gazes outside, through the window smeared with soot, over rooftops, slate-gray water, the foggy harbor and cabled bridge where tugboats trawl—
In the hubbub of docking, she plodded up the stairs carrying the baby; looking up, she took in the harbor, the salt air, and now coming into view, the enormous statue raising its torch in a stately welcome. It shone dull copper, almost a magnetizing glow, so much bigger and taller than what she’d imagined, even in dreams. It was almost overwhelming, in fact, and she felt something well up in her chest. She suddenly wished she had that flask of slivovitz to offer the great lady a toast—na zdorovie, l’chaym, or even cheers, that funny word Max had taught her in their own toast, that same slivovitz, clinking glasses the fateful night before he left.
After entering the enormous building and climbing the staircase, she found herself in a great hall mobbed with people, too many people—there were literally thousands around her—muttering in Yiddish and other tongues. So many around her and yet she never felt more alone. They snaked around the iron barriers, forcing them back and forth in a measured flow. Up ahead was a varnished table where three officials sat to check papers. As she waited anxiously as those in front of her stepped up to be questioned, there were moments of levity that broke the tedium: like the visibly pregnant woman right in front of her with three children in tow, who when she was asked whether she had relatives waiting for her, answered yes, that her husband had already been there for fifteen years!
It was finally her turn and she approached the table. A man with pince-nez checked her papers and stamped them with a rubber seal, then pointed behind him to another room. As she was led there, a matronly woman tried to take Abe from her. She resisted but the woman shushed her, explaining “az men zol Aben bald tsurikbrengen”—that he’d be brought back soon. Elke gave in but kept glancing from side to side, keeping her eyes desperately on him.
Next came the exams—one for the eyes, one for the lungs, one for the mind. A female official probed and prodded her, lifting her eyelids with a tweezer-like device—to check for “trachoma”—that fearful word she’d heard about long before her trip: the wrong results could get you sent back on the next ship. The official placed the cold disk of the stethoscope on her chest and listened—for too long, it seemed. “Dayn Nomen? Vi alt bist du? Fun vanen kumst du? Name? Age? Where are you from, where will you stay?” Too many questions, making her head throb. Then, from out of nowhere, another woman now handed Abe back to her; he was bleckering so she tried to soothe him, humming a lullaby—Rozhinkes mit mandlen, Shlof-zhe, Yidele, shlof.
. . . Raisins and almonds, like in that song, savory and sweet. Like blueberry preserves topping the blintzes as she lays them out on the white ceramic plate. She’ll offer Esther the first one. Soon she’ll arrive with the others. She imagines that look on her daughter’s face as she sees the table, all the delicacies spread there, imagines her clasping her hands together and her musical voice, “Oh, Mama. . . “
She walked through a corridor outside. There were the passengers’ trunks and valises, bulging bundles piled on the flagstones. An official in blue was pointing to the pile and then to the ferry that sat waiting in the slip. “Manhattan, Manhattan,” he kept repeating. She spotted her bags and motioned to a boy with a cap and pais, gesturing to drag out the blue-ribboned sack holding her cast-iron pot and other containers, cooking utensils, the straw valise packed with summer clothes. He carried them over to the ferry and returned, doffing his cap. She reached into her bosom for a coin, but he shook his head and backed away; soon he was lost in the milling crowd. She followed the ramp up to the ferry, securing Abe in her shawl again.
Now she stood facing the prow as it cut through gray water. Glancing back, she saw Ellis Island growing smaller behind them, the enormous statue, too. Looming ahead was the line of the dock backed by wood and brick structures. She felt the ferry gently bump up and down; it calmed and excited her. After the sailors tied the ropes to the posts, the passengers were ushered back down the ramp; at first orderly, then, some broke into a run. Officials began stacking the trunks and valises by the pilings; the water lapped the dock a muddy green. She found hers again and stayed close to them, breathing in the salt air, on the lookout for him.
She catches her breath as she observes her handiwork—the plate of blintzes on the dining room table, set on white lace, her special tablecloth, garnished with apple and orange slices, behind them, the samovar standing guard. She brushes the hair out of her eyes. then rakes back her long, dark mane; she’s enormously proud of it, Max, too . . . which brings her to the moment of their reunion on the dock:
After a while, she noticed Max approaching; he was wearing a straw boater and a wrinkled linen suit. They hugged stiffly and he kissed her on the cheek, chucking Abe on his cleft chin, finally holding them at arm’s length to take them both in. “Mayn Elkele, mayn zun, how the child has grown!” She started trembling.
“Vas iz di mesh? What’s wrong?”
“Ikh hob gemeynt efsher kumstu nisht. I thought . . . you might not be here.”
As he started to draw her in, her sheytl loosened and she raised her hand instinctively to secure it. Max reached over, and all of a sudden, pulled it off, hurling it into the East river flowing beside them. “We’re in America now!” he proclaimed, making her flush all over. At first, all she felt was horror, but after the shock passed, she felt lighter instead of exposed, as if a burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She handed him the child and drew her shawl over her shorn head, snugly tying it under her chin, looking back up at him, then down at the water, where the wig was drifting further and further away, till it disappeared in the cloudy foam.
That’s how their life in New York began.
And here they are, crossing the threshold, one by one: first the youngest ones, Gussie and Schiffra, then Abie, followed by Max, bringing up the rear. Finally Estherel. “queen for a day,” appears at the door. Her whole face lit up from the pinpoints of her eyes. They all stare in wonder at the table. And now she’s clapping her hands, and they join in, singing, “Tsu dayn geburstog! Happy Birthday to You!”