A writer of urban landscapes and the drama of everyday life, Froyim Kaganovski (1893–1958) was one of the most widely read Yiddish writers of his day. Active in literary circles in Warsaw and Odessa, he published serialized short stories in popular Yiddish newspapers, reaching a large audience. “Aunt Hodes” tells the story of one family’s reactions to religious conversion.
All that remains of my childhood memories is mingled with the cloudy, meager light shining from the simple green kerosene lamp that stood on a long metal pedestal. The lamp stood in the middle of the table, gently spreading a sparse green light that blended with the blackness of the surrounding corners.
The evenings were a long frightening passage from day to night, starting out a bit grayish in the dark corners that slowly gripped my mind, developing into a vast and threatening wilderness peopled by angry, menacing trees. The few steps from my room to the kitchen and to the last windowless alcove danced me through a thousand fearsome images. I sat on a low stool, hugging my knees in the warm, green ring of lamplight, and was beset by fears that rose up continuously from the dark alcove. A long procession of dead uncles, aunts, and grandmothers peered out at me. Bobe Brayndl, with her red cheeks, white wimple, and small pointy shoulders, hid there. She ventured forth to save the poor, sick children of the family.
But the worst was Uncle Volf. Uncle Volf was an angry man, with a rough, wiry beard and bushy eyebrows. He wandered around choking people. He was feared by everyone and avoided by all.
My eyes burned with fear. As soon as daylight broke and the dark shadows blended into the walls, my restlessness abated.
Caring for the lamp was exciting—gently wiping the long, fluted glass, preparing the wick, and polishing the burner. I felt that it was only the mighty strength of the lamp that saved us, again and again, from the terrible darkness.
I would look out the window at the darkened courtyard, where the flames of other lamps shone brightly. I saw the watchman carry the small, smoking lamps to light the dark stairwells. My heart swelled to bursting with great pity for the whole world, for my dead little brothers who were taken amid the black smoke into the long, dark boxes on a pallet. I thought of them stumbling around endlessly in the gloom, far from our green lamp and our mother’s warm bosom.
Mother begrudged lighting the lamp early. I would ask, standing close to her, “Mame, when will you finally light the lamp?”
Mother, however, did not hurry, and I feared for her. I imagined that she ignored the shadows that lurked about us.
On such evenings, mainly during autumn or winter, when the windows clattered with an angry cold bluster, it seemed the entire world were remote and far away. The short burst of day quickly retreated into the long, dark night.
On such evenings, my childish heart would beat rapidly with a fear that took my breath away. During those long winter nights I would fall asleep, dream, and wake again suddenly, often shrieking in panic.
* * *
Mother was sorting laundry—old, forgotten clothes. With her head drooped, she sorted—sorted and sang. All of her songs were sad and lonely.
One was a song about a dead cantor, another a morality song about a murderer who washes his bloody hands in a stream in the woods, but the water shuns his bloody stains.
A strong, gray hand pressed down upon my heart: Why have I come into this terrible world, surrounded by the deep, dark night? Who brought me here? A feeling of envy toward my dead brothers welled up in me—they, who lay in the cemetery. A great sadness engulfed me, an angry fear gnawing, like a worm, at my heart. With tears that no one understood, I fell asleep nightly pressed into my mother’s warmth.
* * *
Beneath the meager light of the green lamp and the hovering shadows from all corners of the house lie the memories of my childhood’s long evenings.
Forced to go to bed early, I would lie with tightly closed eyes. My watchful, restless brain picked up every word of the discussion taking place among the adults grouped around the lit-up table.
All they said informed me of an outside world that I could only see through the window. I never slept for long, and my mind was sharp and alert; my ear did not miss the tiniest murmur. Before my sleeping eyes, a remarkable procession of events would unfold.
I was apparently quite ill during those far-off, clouded days. I would often feel my mother’s warm hand pressed gently to my head. And I remember well the cold, foreign touch of doctors and medics, or a strange adult face, and the sudden, wooden tap of a small hammer on my bare back. My hand would lean on the hard knee of the doctor, and I imagined that the knees did everything to make me feel worse because these doctors would always touch me in the places that hurt the most. It seemed to me that their pockets were full of painful instruments, and I would wonder why my mother had sent for them.
I especially remember the “bad” doctor who would lay his hard, scratchy head and red hands, stinking of antiseptic, upon me. He shouted loudly and his words were piercing. After he left, I would lie still and think, overcome by fatigue, believing and almost hoping that everyone else had gone, that I was the only one left in the entire world.
Only in the evening, when the fearsome darkness appeared once again beyond the windows, did the real world return to me. Mother had prepared the lamp once again, rubbing the long tubular glass until it squeaked with cleanliness. The flame caught hold and the strange shadows again rose up along the walls. Slowly, the flame settled into a circle round the table. Here Mother sat with her sewing and her knitting. I knew just by looking at the shirts which were Father’s—the ones with many holes and patches. One shirt was edged with an embroidered neckline of blue and red. This was the Ukrainian shirt, brought from somewhere near Kiev.
I looked at the pale halo of the lamp and at my mother’s lowered eyes.
I knew each and every stain and smear on the blue wall next to my bed: two half circles, a long line, and a dot. The dot looked like a fly; next to it was a damp patch. Mother told me to go to sleep. She explained that the winter would soon be over, summer would come, and Father would earn some money . . . he would bring . . . would bring.
She did not say that we were poor, but I knew this. She would always say to my father, “People live! People have homes!” and I imagined that all these people who “lived” somehow didn’t allow Father to “bring.” That’s how I would fall asleep . . . and Mother would sing the sad song about the murderer. But I always woke up the minute Father came in. My gaze was immediately drawn to my father’s young, strong shoulders, his head, covered with thick dark hair, partly visible by the light of the lamp.
Mother’s brother, Yosl, sat at her side. He was tall with a pale, handsome face. He had been with us for a long time. He came from Mother’s town and brought large, sweet-smelling cookies. Then there was Father’s friend Shakhne, the good Shakhne who always had something special for me in his pockets. He had a round, stooped back and one arm that was shorter than the other. With the very large hand on the shorter arm, he would gently stroke me and casually throw a few playthings, smelling of fresh wood or shiny metal, onto my bed.
That night the house was full of the shadows of real people, and my heart was full of joy. Everyone was here: my father, Yosl, and Shakhne. I covered my eyes and felt my father’s hand touch my head several times. I breathed in the damp, cold smell of the street coming from his clothes, and I waited.
I waited to hear something about Aunt Hodes, about this aunt whom I had seen only once, as in a dream. I saw her blond, curly hair and the green dress from which her soft white arms emerged. I imagined her as a large and beautiful doll whose smile lit up the house.
After that one time, I never saw her again. I heard that she had moved away, and strangely all my senses seemed to follow her. She went to see a certain Khayem, after which she was to return. When they spoke of Aunt Hodes, they also spoke of this Khayem, and this Khayem loomed large and dark in my mind. I was afraid of him. He had done something to my lovely Aunt Hodes.
My mother pulled at her hair in frustration as Father began to tell of Khayem’s “making her life miserable.”
Father said, “Poor, dear Hodes.” My heart began to beat wildly, and a silent sobbing overcame me. I turned toward the wall, and from the rods and knobs of my bed emerged the huge, black, fearsome Khayem. He silently approached the golden Hodes. I quietly stretched out my hand and slapped the wall, wanting to somehow hurt the awful Khayem.
* * *
They sat around the table, whispering.
“With Hodes, things are very bad.”
By the light of the table, the dark, ominous words tumbled down, like angry birds.
“Golden Hodes . . .”
“And where is he, this Khayem?”
“He sucked out her life’s blood.”
“You should see her. You wouldn’t recognize her.”
Tears welled up in my throat and a blinding flash seared my eyes. The terrible Khayem rose up menacingly in my mind, like the dark night beyond the windows, and I suddenly heard my mother saying, as she ate, “But Hodes loves him, this Khayem.”
A wild, broken cry escaped from my chest, and I began to tremble.
They all stood around me, feeling my forehead.
Mother said, “The child is very sick. He burns like fire.”
I was not sick. A hot, burning pain for Aunt Hodes and her shame pressed down upon me, and a glaring hatred for this awful Khayem choked me.
Once again the “bad” doctor came. He began to shout, and again his scratchy head lay upon my chest. But I waited only for the evening, when I would learn more. Mother once again spoke angrily about Hodes: “She gave him all she had . . . Hodes cried . . . Khayem arrived drunk . . . Khayem took the money, Hodes’s last penny . . . hard-earned labor . . . her blood.”
Mother cried into the blue shirt: “Poor, unfortunate Hodes.”
* * *
Ifelt hot. I imagined a small, barking dog crawling up onto my bed, a tiny dog that could barely be seen. But the dog soon grew larger, terribly big, monstrous—big as the house! I was frightened and began gasping for breath. “I am choking!” I cried out with a great shriek. I no longer wanted to pretend to be sleeping. I began sobbing: “I am sick—soon I will die.” Just like Borekhl, the neighbor’s youngster who had died. Mother clasped me to her breast. Her eyes looked at me strangely, wide with worry. “My child, my child.”
Mother spat over my head and drew me even further into herself, and I murmured, “Hodes, Hodes . . .”
There was a tumult all around me, the noise of many voices, as if it were a holiday. People were here in the house, my father as well, even though it was still daylight. A small stream of light slowly spiraled in through the window, dancing around the chairs near my bed.
Something was happening. On the bed was a new toy made out of red wood and a wire clasp. Mother was leaning over me; her cool hair brushed my face, and she said, “Aunt Hodes has come to see you.”
My eyes were closed and my fingers wandered, finally meeting smooth silk, a warm smell of fragrant skin, like a faraway memory of wedding perfume.
I felt Aunt Hodes’s hands in mine. Through half-closed eyes, I saw her. A dry chill from her faded cheek touched mine, and a deep shudder went through me.
I didn’t want to let her go. Suddenly, feeling strong and healthy, I pressed her to me, shamefully.
“Aunt Hodes” slipped from my mouth, and I heard her voice, a generous, light, blond voice: “Do you love me?”
“Love,” I murmured.
“Khayem, come to the child.”
My eyes flew open; near my bed, on a stool, sat a strange, short Jew with a heavy red face. Large teeth showed from behind his moustache.
He stretched out a small, squarish hand to me.
“No, I don’t want to,” I protested. I clasped Aunt Hodes’s head, pressed it to me, and cried: “I don’t want to, I don’t want to! No, no!” And I felt another current of strength run through my hands and legs.
* * *
Afew bleak drops of rain slid down the windowpanes, as though the glass were covered in sweat. The late-autumn afternoon began to fill the house with ominous darkness. It was cold even though the flames from the stove glowed brightly.
Uncle came in and gave a cold tap to the mezuzah hanging in the doorway. His gray beard held a sad silence. This was my Uncle Vova, the jolly uncle who would always joke with us, pulling this one’s ear or tickling that one’s belly. Two aunts arrived, Aunt Rokhl and Aunt Khayke. They were dressed in long, sleeveless overcoats, like black velvet wingless birds. They hurried into the far room, leaving behind them the acrid smell of mothballs. This time they had brought nothing; they had come empty-handed. Even my uncle did not bother to leave his elegant bone-topped cane in the hall but rushed straight into the far room. My father and mother were also there. Mother left the door ajar, but her head peered out often. Her face held a look of hidden anxiety, and she kept signaling us children to be quiet.
The lamp had not been lit. It stood aloof, cold and strange, on the table with the green tablecloth. By now it was very dark. The evening lurched through the windows like an angry dog. We youngsters gathered in the darkest corner near the stove, where the black, shiny oilcloth of the couch reflected the dancing flames. In hushed tones, we told childish stories of dark stairways leading to cellars or attics and of old beggars who stole children from their beds.
Evenings in the darkened house conjured up fears and a need to keep close to one another. Only little Sorele knew something. Her large, watchful eyes were fixed on the closed door to the far room, from whence one could hear a low, controlled rumbling of voices.
Sorele held up a finger, her eyes open wide with a fixed look, and she spoke in a halting, frightening voice: “She has converted.”
Frightened by her words, she and the other children jumped as if to run away from this harsh truth.
“Shh, shh, quiet . . . Aunt Hodes . . .”
The long evening seemed to go on forever. The house was neglected. No one cooked and the kitchen was cold. Father was nowhere to be seen for a long time, and all through the night, groans and sighs were heard from the beds. Mother’s soft, wet eyes looked as if she were crying without tears.
The far room, which the children were not allowed to enter, was full of people during the day. For dinner, Mother served some cold meat and sausage, which reminded us of Erev Pesach, when all the hametz was burned. But this was not a quiet, restrained commotion that echoed in the corners. Only eleven-year-old Sorele was able to catch any hint of what went on behind the closed door. Holding a finger to her lips, she managed to say in hushed tones, “Aunt Hodes . . .”
Aunt Hodes, the lovely Hodes with her warm, scented hands, had disappeared. She had vanished, like the warm summer days, and we no longer saw her. Mother and Father said that she had simply gone away. But in the same breath they sighed and added mumbled words. I asked nothing.
In the dark hours of the night, when the children were sent to sleep, she appeared to me on the shadowy yellow wall next to my bed. Then everything was bright, and the intoxicating smell of her smooth, fragrant hands would rise up out of the cold, dark night.
I see her stretch up on her long, strong legs, bathed in multicolored rays of light.
I feel the caress of her sweet, perfumed hair and hold my breath. I covered my head with the blanket.
Then she appeared as I had last seen her, when she was with us at the summer house on that indescribably lovely, clear day.
She takes me by the hand and leads me into the woods, where a silvery haze engulfs the heat of the day. There in the woods, near the small lake, she sits down. Her long legs emerge gracefully from the folds of her light summer dress. She takes off her stockings and her golden, laughing eyes gaze upon me with sweet concern. “You are only a young boy,” she says, and smiles.
And with her sweet, sun-kissed lips, she draws my face near. I close my eyes.
The silvery haze thickens; I imagine music in the air, wafting over us from somewhere.
Aunt Hodes, larger than life, stands near the lake. She is awesome, tall, and naked. Her skin seems to glow, to burn, as if in a well of light.
My heart begins to beat wildly. I want to stay. I want to leave. But there is no way out.
In the midst of all this, I find that I am angry with Aunt Hodes. I throw myself down and bury my head in the cool grass. In the seductive darkness, I see my naked Aunt Hodes. Her arms and legs are large, and her whiteness quickly becomes a rosy flame. Something disturbs me deeply, and I want to run away, to escape somehow, but all at once a howling cry carries me away. I awaken to a sudden, piercing downpour of rain. Aunt Hodes is half dressed, but her bare feet quickly spring into motion. The wind blows her hair in all directions, and she laughs as I run effortlessly beside her.
* * *
That was the last time I saw my Aunt Hodes. Now, in the darkened corner of the house, when Sorele uttered those strange angry words, I suddenly saw her again. The same wind blew, but this time it was laden with fear and worry. I imagined her flying around in a dark, horrid world, angry winds blowing her about. I smelled the disturbing antiseptic odor of the hospital and illness, and once more I saw the serious sisters dressed in black carrying her away. And the word conversion stood before us all in fearsome, black letters.
I went quietly over to Sorele and whispered, “Sorele, how does one convert?”
Sorele raised her dark, shining eyes and answered, “With a crucifix—you take a crucifix . . .”
She began to tell us children, as in a dream. “They carried her away. She swore an oath. The bells rang in the church.” And she suddenly burst into tears.
She started to snivel and sob in spasms, like a woman.
I too felt a deep cry welling up in me.
Mother came in and pulled Sorele to her breast.
“What’s wrong with the child? We must light the lamp!”
I could no longer remain quiet, and pressing my head into Mother’s palm I shouted, “Sorele—Sorele says that Aunt Hodes has converted.”
My mother placed a hand quickly over my mouth and pressed me to her so that I could no longer speak.
“Shh, shh, what kind of talk? What kind of talk is this?” And she herself began to weep bitterly.
“Children, children, what are you saying? Aunt Hodes will come soon. She was not well. She was not. Today she will come. She will soon come.”
There was a great commotion at the door. Mother pushed us aside and ran forward. When she reappeared, Cousin Peysekhl, recently discharged from the army, was with her. Between them, supported under the arms like a fainting, pale apparition, swaying dangerously on stumbling feet, was Aunt Hodes. Her hands hung limply from her shoulders and her eyes were half closed.
All was quiet. The door was closed, and Mother began to light the lamp on a side table, like when my grandmother died. Soon, my two aunts in their great sleeveless cloaks emerged, as though pushed, from the far room.
Uncle Vova was shouting at them in a wailing, Yom Kippur synagogue voice.
The evening seemed endless, with the lamp burning off in the corner, deep shadows forming on the walls. I lay in bed with a beating heart. Strange dreams invaded my sleep—I saw dark people milling about the threatening gate of the Christian church. Suddenly I awoke, heart beating wildly. I did not know whether it was night or day.
I slipped out of bed quietly and, shivering from both cold and fear, stole into the far room. Everything had been moved—the table, the benches, all pushed aside—and on the black, carved table stood a silver candelabra shedding white light. In contrast, a bluish, cold light filtered in through the window. And there, lying on the sofa, deep among the piled-up bedclothes, lay Aunt Hodes. Her eyes were closed and fluttered gently in sleep; one hand, strangely white, had strayed from under the covers.
I leaned over in fright, listened for her breathing, and took in her scent.
She smelled, as always, of the gentle fragrance of flowers, but it seemed there was something else as well—a sharp, acrid smell. Her lips were pale and pursed, as though beckoning. I was frightened, and a powerful sense of pity pushed me to the tips of my toes, my bare feet arching upward. Lost in dark confusion, I pressed my lips to her mouth. Then I felt her hand ever so gently embrace my head. Her lips were dry, and her tears, when they finally fell, burned my skin to the bone.
Originally from Winnipeg, Bracha Beverly Weingrod is a retired educator and translator who lives in Jerusalem. She has taught Yiddish and other subjects in Canada and Israel and has lectured extensively on Hebrew-English learning disabilities. She is the translator of The Yiddish Family Cookbook (2010).