THE RABBI'S GIRLS
Excerpted from THE RABBI'S GIRLS by Johanna Hurwitz.
A hundred years seemed to have passed since Passover and the circus. I thought back to those peaceful days of springtime. When would life return to its calm, normal flow? After the storm, nothing seemed real. Everyday activities that had always taken place were forgotten. The last classes at school were canceled, and the semester was concluded without the final assemblies and the awarding of prizes. Abby graduated from the high school without any ceremony at all. Children stayed home and helped parents clean up houses and yards and salvage what they could from the losses.
Compared to others, we were very lucky. Some people had lost the roofs of their homes while others lost the entire house, which was either destroyed by the winds or the fires that resulted from downed power lines and gas explosions. Worst of all were the losses of human life. Hundreds of people had been killed, including eighty in the movie theater. Among the dead were two Jewish girls whose families belonged to the synagogue.
"What were they doing in a movie theater on the Sabbath?" demanded Mrs. Fromberg. She had stopped by to see if Mama needed any help, but as usual she brought more aggravation than assistance. "It served them right," she said sanctimoniously. "God has punished them!"
"What are you saying?" Mama protested, as she put a clean diaper on Lorain. "Bessie was only twelve, and Evelyn was fourteen. And what about the seventy-eight other people who were killed at the same time who weren't Jews?" She paused to catch her breath. "It wasn't their Sabbath. Surely God wouldn't kill all of them just to punish two foolish girls."
"That's God's business," Mrs. Fromberg said, shrugging her shoulders. "He knows what he is doing."
Mama didn't bother to answer. I watched her and saw how tired she looked. The tornado had taken a lot out of her. Last night Evie had wakened in the dark, crying from a nightmare. Mama had gotten up to comfort her, and when she lighted a small lamp, I wakened too. Mama was still wearing her daytime clothing. "Mama, why aren't you wearing your nightgown?" I whispered.
"Hush," Mama whispered back. "Never mind. I sleep in my dress in case I have to wake up suddenly for an emergency."
She didn't say anything more, but at that moment I became aware that even grown-ups like Mama were afraid. Life is uncertain and can be snatched or blown away unexpectedly in an instant. Under the covers, I shivered even though the evening was warm. A house would never again seem secure. Life was as delicate and uncertain as a burning candle. I had thought that death came only to weak people: very old, like Selena's grandmother and Mrs. Rabinowitz, or very young, like Lorain when she got pneumonia. I had forgotten about the surprises, like President Harding's sudden death. Bessie, who was killed in the tornado, was only a little older than I was.
Papa agreed with Mama. He said that God didn't punish children for their errors; this is 1924, he said, not the biblical era. God is watching, but he won't send a plague or a flood to punish the world. He had given a sermon the week after the tornado, and he said, "Don't blame God and don't blame yourselves. When there is a calamity in nature, everyone is a victim, Jews and Christians, good people and bad. We can only continue to lead our lives and to hold on to our values. Be generous to your neighbors and loving to your families. Obey the commandments, one day at a time. No one, healthy or sick, young or old, ever knows how many days he has on earth, and so each day must be used well. Each day may be our last, but we must live it as if we are just beginning."
A month after the tornado Abby came home from work with an announcement that Mayor Hoffman was planning a rededication ceremony for the city. He was encouraging people to plant new trees to replace those that had been destoyed by the tornado. There would be speeches, the high-school band would play music, and there would even be refreshments.
We were glad to think of something pleasant for a change. After the storm, there had been much ill feeling, not only of looting that had taken place afterward. For several days, martial law was declared by the mayor and the National Guard was stationed in the area.
Two days after Abby's announcement Papa received an official letter from the mayor informing him of the rededication ceremony and inviting him to give a speech. "Each of the clergymen in town will say a few words," Papa explained.
"Considering the small number of Jews in Lorain, it is a big honor," said Mama proudly. "We will have to fix your good suit. You have lost so much weight your suit will look like a sack on you."
Doris and Evie giggled at the thought of Papa wearing a sack, but I noticed Betty and Abby exchanging worried glances. Papa had not been well before the tornado, but the days after the storm, when he walked through rain and mud puddles visiting the members of his congregation and comforting families on their losses, damaged his health even more. No one had eaten much after the tornado. No one had an appetite for food. But Papa, who already had lost weight during the spring, shouldn't have missed so many meals, worked so hard, and slept so little.
I had heard Mama speaking to Papa about his health. At her insistence, he had gone to see Dr. Pelowski. When he returned home, Papa spoke to Mama in Yiddish so I had to strain to understand. I wished Abby was home to decode the words for me. Her Yiddish was much better than mine. I gathered that Dr. Pelowski thought Papa should be examined by a specialist. Papa's sister in New York was married to a doctor, and he would know whom Papa should see. "When the ceremony is over and life has returned to normal, then I will make a trip to New York," Papa promised Mama.
I felt greatly relieved, for I had faith in Dr. Pelowski. After all, he had helped Lorain last winter. If he thought a specialist could cure Papa, then no doubt he was right. So I looked forward with happy anticipation to the coming event; as soon as it was over, Papa would go and get his cure.
On a sunny August afternoon, as calm breezes gently moved the leaves on the few old trees that had escaped the ravages of the tornado, people gathered to rededicate the city of Lorain. Men who had temporarily lost their jobs when the shipyard was razed by the storm had been employed to clear all the rubble from the city. They had worked hard for this day. Doris and I were wearing our matching Passover dresses with a blue-and-yellow print. At the last moment, a button came off my dress.
Mama reached for her sewing basket, and she handed me a piece of thread while she began to sew the button back on. "Chew on the thread," she reminded me. There is an old superstition that if clothing is mended while you are wearing it, you will lose your memory. But the danger is counteracted if you chew on a piece of thread.
"Oh, Mama!" I said, laughing. "So much has happened since we moved to Lorain. I could never forget any of it." But to make her happy, I chewed on the piece of thread.
At last we were ready to leave. For the first time, Mama was bringing Lorain into the center of the city whose name she shared. Lorain was almost a year old now, and although she couldn't speak more than half a dozen words, she sat quietly on Mama's lap and watched alertly with her big, brown eyes. She seemed to understand everything going on around her.
"What a good baby," whispered a woman sitting behind Mama.
Mama turned around and said proudly, "She is waiting for her father. He is next on the program." Mama was so proud of Papa sitting up on the platform that for once she even forgot to spit because someone had praised one of her daughters.
Papa looked very small standing on the platform. But his wonderful sermon voice came out loud and clear.
"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" said Papa, quoting one of the psalms from the Bible. I listened as he spoke about the good work done by so many hands to prepare for this day and contrasted it with the evil of the few during the hours after the tornado. I stopped listening and looked around me. There were so many people that I recognized. Again I felt, as I had the afternoon we went to the circus, that I really was a part of Lorain and belonged here. I hoped that Papa's quarrel with the synagogue board would be patched up. After all, many people had praised his devotion during the aftermath of the tornado. I liked Lorain, and I didn't want to leave. I looked at Baby Lorain sitting on Mama's lap, and I thought how lucky she was to share her name with this city. Perhaps someday I would go back to North Carolina and discover the things that had once made that place special for Mama and Papa.
Mrs. Fromberg was sitting across from us on the other side of the aisle. She caught my eye and nodded. Today even Mrs. Fromberg seemed a good friend. I had overheard a conversation in which she told Mama that she was trying to organize a campaign for Papa to remain at the synagogue.
There was a loud burst of applause, and I realized that Papa had finished speaking. Doris leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Wasn't Papa the best of all?"
Even though I hadn't heard all of his words, I knew that she was right. "Of course," I said. "Papa is always the best."
And we sat there smiling proudly as the people around us applauded Papa and nodded their heads toward us, the rabbi's girls.