By Elisheva Rabinovitsh, translated by Avi Blitz
The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 32:5) explains that the Children of Israel were redeemed in Egypt because they preserved their Jewish names. The theme of Jewish and non-Jewish names is common in Yiddish literature. This short story tells how a family at odds over the name of a child is reconciled after the catastrophic events of a single night in Chile.
The theme of race also plays a role in the story. An ambiguous reference to the servant girl’s racial background early in the tale serves as a foil to the young Jewish protagonists’ aspirations to whiteness in the New World. The story explores familiar Yiddish literary tropes—intergenerational conflict and the tension between tradition and modernity—through a distinctly Latin American lens. — Avi Blitz
The sun streamed into the sumptuous dining room through the broad windows. The light split into many colors in the crystal glasses, the silver tray, and the porcelain plates set out on the table. Everything shimmered on the white tablecloth, lending a festive air to wealthy Avrom-Haim’s home.
Avrom sat at the head of the table. His young wife, Matilda, sat to his right; to his left, his elderly mother, Sheyndl. A dark, pretty servant girl accompanied a three-year-old boy into the room, the young couple’s only child. The boy ran to his father and tried to climb up on his knee.
Grandma Sheyndl stood up and hurried over to the boy. She lifted him up, clasped him in her arms, and planted a warm kiss on his rosy cheek.
“My Ephraim,” she exclaimed, smiling. “What a sweetheart you are.”
Her young daughter-in-law, Matilda, pursed her lips and her delicate face clouded over. She got up, marched over to the old woman, wordlessly retrieved the child from her arms, and ordered the maid: “Maria, put Patricio in his chair. It’s time to eat.”
Sheyndl returned to her seat dejectedly.
The little boy watched the faces around the table as he was led to the high chair, his customary place at the table. He waited patiently for the plate of food that his nanny Maria would promptly bring him. He sensed that something had happened and that he should sit quiet and still.
Silence mixed with an oppressive sadness in the dining room. The only sound was the clanging of the spoon that the little boy used to eat his food.
Avrom glowered at his wife and took his dinner in silence.
Old Sheyndl slouched her head and stared hard into her plate. She forced back the tears welling up in her eyes and silently reproached herself: Why did she kiss her grandson when she knew her daughter-in-law didn’t like it? And why couldn’t she make peace with the child’s strange name, Patricio?
When her husband, Ephraim, passed away, it was as if her world had come to an end. Sheyndl didn’t believe she’d survive. In their thirty-five years together they’d merged into one person, one soul. She and her two sons survived him, two children whom she loved dearly. God took one of them too, and Sheyndl went utterly to pieces.
For the first few years she was hardly alive. Her son, Avrom, moved to Chile, and she stayed behind in Argentina. She didn’t attend her son’s wedding, even though he asked her to sell everything and come and live with him. She didn’t want to abandon her old residence, her empty home where every corner was a reminder of the bygone joys and hardships she’d shared with her husband and children. But the happy news that her son was to become a father roused her soul, and the old woman felt alive again. She forgot her unhappiness, her profound sadness and languor, and prepared to leave. She sold everything and moved to be with her son.
Soon after her arrival, she sensed her daughter-in-law’s antagonism toward her. Sheyndl would always look for the best: “It must be Matilda’s condition,” or “People are always agitated and nervous in these situations,” or “Once she gives birth, please God, everything will be different.” Sheyndl accepted everything with love. She would constantly give way, making herself smaller and less visible.
When guests came to the house to pass the time and play cards with her son and his wife, Sheyndl would keep away from the brightly lit rooms so as not to disturb them. She would stay in her chamber, all alone. She wouldn’t speak loudly, wouldn’t bother the maid, wouldn’t make any requests. She just waited for the child, her grandson, to be born.
And she finally lived to see it.
Her daughter-in-law gave birth to a boy, just as Sheyndl had silently prayed for during the dark nights of her solitude. A son would bear the name of her husband, her Ephraim, the name she had called the child since before he was born.
Later, when they brought him home from hospital and she stood over his crib, she thought, “Here lies a world, my life, my sole consolation. Thank you, God, for the kindness you’ve shown me. I don’t deserve it.”
Sheyndl gave all the love in her old heart to the child. She worried every time the boy gave a little cough or a sneeze. A mere rustle in the child’s room would wake her up at night. Whenever the maid would take the boy to the park, Sheyndl would accompany them. She ignored everything for the sake of her sole comfort, her grandson, Ephraim.
The best times were when her son and daughter-in-law would spend half the day, and sometimes whole nights, away from home, playing cards and socializing with their friends and acquaintances. The child would stay at home with his grandmother and the maid. Sheyndl was happiest then. She could caress and kiss the child, press him to her heart, and freely call him by the cherished name Ephraim, since the most difficult thing of all was that her daughter-in-law insisted on using the name Patricio.
She thought about her husband, Ephraim, who had inherited his name from his grandfather, the rabbi of the shtetl. And Ephraim’s grandfather wasn’t just any rabbi—he was a real sage. One in a million! Her husband Ephraim too was no one to be ashamed of. And who was Patricio? What had he been, this Patricio? A great teacher? A rabbi? A Talmudic scholar?
But only this name that was so foreign to Sheyndl pleased her daughter-in-law, and Matilda would snap every time her mother-in-law used the name “Ephraim.”
And kissing the child? How many times had Matilda made a scene out of it?
“She shouldn’t be kissing him. Kissing children isn’t hygienic,” she’d say.
Only Matilda’s husband could restrain her. He said that his mother couldn’t bear it, that Matilda should be careful—his mother was old, weak, alone.
But Matilda wasn’t having any of it today. She had taught them both a lesson at dinner, her mother-in-law and her husband.
Old Sheyndl gathered her strength and kept eating. She wouldn’t give in to Matilda. She’d call the child whatever she liked. She’d do so when her daughter-in-law wasn’t listening. That foreign name had never crossed her lips—and it never would. She’d refrain from kissing the child to keep her daughter-in-law happy.
And so, in silence, the sad meal came to an end.
The air was close that night. The sky was cloudless but also starless. It hung like a heavy curtain over God’s sleepy world. There was no breeze. Not a whisper could be heard. A dark fear passed through the heavy stillness.
Suddenly a deaf rumble growled from deep in the earth. Distant thunder. The earth began to quiver, shake. First weakly, then stronger.
Sheyndl woke up and jumped out of bed. She went straight to the child’s room. Little Ephraim was sleeping peacefully, completely unaware. Sheyndl noticed the wall by the child’s bed shaking. She grabbed him, pulled him to her breast, and made to run. But the wall began to crack, and Sheyndl fell to the ground with the boy. Her only thought was to cover the child with her body; so as not to crush him under her weight, she propped herself up with her hands.
Half bent over the weeping child, Sheyndl endured the hail of brick and mortar falling from the crumbling walls onto her weak shoulders. She felt the bones in her arms creak. She felt the blows of brick falling on her head, on her back. She heard screams from the street outside. But she thought only of the child. She wanted to say something to calm him down, but she could only manage a gasp from her blocked throat. She heard her son’s voice. She sensed him trying to pull them out through the cracked doorframe. She lost consciousness.
When Sheyndl came round she was in her room, in her own bed. Her hands were bound in plaster. Her head felt as heavy as lead. She couldn’t move a muscle. A nurse in a white uniform leaned over her and asked, “Do you want anything?”
Sheyndl opened her lips. She wanted to speak but couldn’t. She wanted to ask about her grandson, but only a silent groan came from her wounded breast. Two tears flashed in her old eyes and began rolling down her sunken cheeks.
The nurse went to the door and quietly called to someone.
Matilda appeared. She came to the bed, leaned over her mother-in-law, and said, “Mother, do you recognize me? You haven’t opened your eyes for ten days and nights.”
The old woman looked at her daughter-in-law. The pain and sorrow that Matilda observed in Sheyndl’s eyes made her pale as chalk.
She quickly rose, went to the door, and returned a moment later with her son in her arms. She held the child over the sick woman’s bed. Beaming with joy, she said, “Mama, it’s Ephraim! Give your grandma a kiss!”
The old woman’s face lit up. A pale smile showed on her white lips.
Quietly but clearly, she muttered, “Ephraim—Patricio.”
Elisheva Rabinovitsh (ca. 1878–1970) was born in Warsaw. Her father, Shaul Pinkhas Rabinovitsh (1845–1910), was Heinrich Graetz’s Hebrew translator and a leading member in Hovevey Zion. Her sister, Puah Rakovsky (1865– 1955), was a feminist who opened the first Jewish girls’ school in Warsaw.
The lesser-known Elisheva Rabinovitsh immigrated to Chile sometime between the world wars. She inherited her father’s Zionism and became president of WIZO in her adopted home, Santiago. She is noted in the annals of Santiago’s Jewish community for her contributions to Yiddish literary life in Chile. Rabinovitsh eventually made Aliyah. She died in Tel Aviv in 1970.
Translator Avi Blitz spent two years in Latin America and is a speaker of Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and his native English. He has a PhD in comparative literature and Jewish studies and teaches Yiddish remotely through the Argentinian branch of YIVO (Fundación IWO) in Buenos Aires.
Header Image: Matías Cona, Parrón, Colección Mac Kellar