Compassion – Susan Susser

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

At twelve years old, Trudy’s deepest and most fervent wish was to be more like the other girls in her class at the suburban, Jewish Day School where she studied. It wasn’t her appearance that bothered her. She was pretty enough with her fair complexion and greenish-blue eyes, although her coarse, kinky, brown hair kept her busy trying to tame it with thick rubber bands and a variety of colorful barrettes. Of course, she realized that even her closest friends were different from each other in certain ways. Phoebe, for example, was the most studious, always getting the highest marks on tests, while Ellen was happy enough just to get a passing grade. But both girls had a lightheartedness and spontaneity about them that Trudy felt she sorely lacked. How she envied the ease in which they made plans to meet on Sundays –ice skating in winter, swimming lessons in spring. But Trudy’s parents didn’t have money for such things, and she would never dare to ask.

This was the 1950’s, the early years after the war, and Trudy was the only child of two Holocaust survivors: a frail, nervous, impatient father and an overly protective, sickly mother. Her parents had met in a DP camp in Germany and married late. Trudy’s father recently lost his job at the kosher butcher shop near the center of town.  “Have to cut back, Max, so sorry,” his boss had told him, although rumor had it that a younger, more energetic man was lined up to take his place. Mama was sick again and this time the doctor said she might have to reenter the hospital for more tests. Trudy couldn’t help but feel the tension, for the troubles her parents faced permeated the air in their spare, two-room apartment above a railway track, far away from the more expensive, private homes of the affluent, all-American families of her classmates on the other side of town. At home, she was usually serious, almost fearful, but when she met up with her friends at the start of the school day, Trudy tried to act as light-hearted as she could be.

Her problem this morning in the school yard was how to hide her disappointment from her good friend Phoebe who was bubbling over with excitement about the sleep-over she was planning for the upcoming winter holiday.

“You’re not coming?!” Phoebe gasped.

“No, my mother won’t let me.”

“Why not?”

“She thinks it’s not healthy for so many girls to sleep on the floor in one room.”

“But it’s fine. My father’s a doctor and he says it’s okay.”

“I know.” Trudy said. Her voice was flat, resigned. Her mother had lost her entire family during the war –  her parents, a beloved sister, an older brother, cousins, uncles, aunts.  Trudy understood this was the reason for her fears.

Phoebe’s dark eyes widened. She pulled at one of her tightly woven, black braids and looked away. Then she turned back. She smiled her dimpled grin at Trudy, and gave her a hug.  “It’s okay. I understand.”

And Phoebe did understand. For without ever discussing Trudy’s difficulty with her parents’ over-protectiveness and their underlying sadness, Phoebe sensed it, if only from the very few times she visited Trudy at home. Horrific stories of the Holocaust had filtered into the awareness of even those children in the community whose parents had been lucky enough to have been born in America.

None of the Rabbis in Trudy’s school had been formally trained as teachers. In the years following the war, the feeling was that anybody who had studied in a European yeshiva and then miraculously survived the Nazi atrocities was capable of teaching Jewish-American children the Bible and Jewish tradition. In fact, most of these Rabbis did succeed in this mission. But not with Trudy, who spent most of her time in class daydreaming.  To her ears, their voices were oppressive, foreign, accented with the guttural rrrr’s and khkhkh’s which were quite similar, in fact, to the voices of her parents. At the very sound of such a voice, Trudy’s mind began to wander, unable (refusing?) to pay attention to the words of the Bible her teachers would read aloud and discuss.

 Reprimands on the part of these Rabbis had no effect. “Trudy! What did I just say? Open to the page we are discussing!”  Rabbi Klein barked at her the other day, rudely interrupting whatever imaginary scene was playing out in her mind.  But once he turned his attention back to the class, Trudy’s thoughts drifted away once more.

Rabbi Jacobs, the principal of the school, had received a number of complaints from teachers about Trudy’s low exam grades and her consistent lack of attention in class. This is why, in the middle of Rabbi Klein’s class about the prophet Jeremiah and his harsh warnings to the people of Israel, a hall monitor knocked on the door. The teacher, a stout man with a booming voice and an annoyed look, permitted him to enter. The monitor had brought a note from the principal. The teacher opened the note and read: Please send Trudy H. to my office.

“Trudy,” the teacher said. “The principal would like to see you in his office now.”

When she heard the teacher call her name, Trudy jumped in surprise. Her look was fearful. She glanced around at her classmates. The colors of their clothing seemed to fade before her eyes; the room took on the appearance of a sepia photograph, blending into the grimy wooden tone of the desks nearby.  The last thing Trudy wanted to do now was stand up — the eyes of her peers upon her — walk out of the room toward the damp, cold hallway, up the flight of stairs, and find her way to the principal’s office.

But Trudy did what she was told.

She found the door partially open and she knocked. The room was small, with bare white walls. Rabbi Jacobs, thin and long faced with rimless glasses, sat talking on the phone at his desk. He motioned for her to enter and take a seat.

When he finished his phone call, he picked up some papers lying on his desk, read a bit, and looked up. “The reason I’ve called you in, Trudy, is that you’ve received a very high grade on your aptitude tests,” he said. “Yet your class grades are way below what they should be. Can you explain this?” His voice had a stern, inflexible tone. His words came out slowly, with a hint of a German accent. Her friend, Phoebe, had once called him a Nazi.

 Trudy lowered her head. She focused on the principal’s long, slender fingers tapping on the glass top of his desk. His finger-nails were carefully manicured. Then she looked up. She met his gaze but said nothing. Her face was expressionless.  Moments passed in silence.

Rabbi Jacobs took in a long deep breath and leaned back in his chair. Trudy saw the muscles around his jaw tighten. His eyes appeared distant behind his glasses. Because he was so much taller, he bent his head downward to stare at her. He seemed to be thinking: How to use the power of his position? How to accomplish what he’d set out to do: to effect a change?

Leaning forward, his voice devoid of emotion, the principal spoke. “Tell me Trudy,” he asked. “How do your parents punish you?”

He had touched a nerve.

Trudy’s body responded against her will. Huge tears welled up and overflowed. She was crying now, albeit without sound, and her cheeks were flushed and wet. Hurtful memories of home invaded her mind: the parties and sleepovers she’d been kept from attending, her parents’ anxiety and their impatience, the unemployment, the poverty, and the fear. What did he know, this smug man observing her?

“Do you cry a lot?” he asked her now. His words rang with arrogance.

Trudy did not answer. Her tears had ceased to flow. Hatred had risen in their place.

The principal waited. He continued to stare. “I expect an immediate improvement in your grades,” he said sternly. “You may return to class now.”

Trudy rose from her chair. She walked quickly toward the hallway to sit for a while and regain her composure. The bare concrete of the stairs felt cold on her bottom, even through the thick wool of the wide, navy-blue skirt she was wearing. Slowly, the rhythm of her breathing returned to normal. She was ready to return to class.

 Suddenly a loud sound pierced the stillness of the hallway. The metal door to the staircase opened and her friend Phoebe’s older brother, Larry, appeared.  His round face was deeply flushed and his eyes behind his dark-rimmed glasses were red and puffy, as if he’d been crying as well.

 “Don’t tell me you’ve been to see Rabbi Jacobs too,” he said, obviously taken aback at seeing her.

Trudy looked up at him in surprise. She’d never spoken to Larry before, just seen him in the distance when he entered the schoolyard together with Phoebe most mornings. Once Phoebe told her that Larry had problems in school because he was high-strung, but Trudy didn’t quite know what this meant. Something about Larry now reminded her of an injured puppy she saw one morning on her way to school.  It had been hit by a car and it was pawing the air and yelping loudly as the owner rushed to retrieve it from the road.

“What a jerk,” Larry mumbled. “He should burn in hell!”

A minute later, with his mop of curly black hair flying, he careened back down the stairs, two at a time, and slammed the metal door closed behind him. “So, it’s not just me Rabbi Jacobs can make cry,” Trudy murmured to herself.

By now, Rabbi Klein’s class would have ended and it was recess until the bell. Next period would be Rabbi Wiseman’s class and Trudy was glad of this. Rabbi Wiseman, a short, gentle, round-faced man, never insulted her, or even reprimanded. On the contrary, whenever he saw her, he smiled. Even when her mind did wander, it was always with a smile that he won her attention back. In Rabbi Wiseman’s class, Trudy felt light, buoyant, as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her chest. One day last week, she even dared ask a question which other teachers had dismissed angrily. “Why is it,” she’d asked, “that no one I know observes every one of the Jewish laws. Some people observe this; others only observe that. It’s confusing.”

“Nonsense,” Rabbi Klein had growled when Trudy asked him this question. “Do you want me to tell you that you don’t have to observe Jewish law!?”

But Rabbi Wiseman understood her query. “You’re right, Trudy,” he’d told her. “Most people in our community follow the customs they’ve seen at home.  And not every home is the same.”

“So how do I know when I must obey a law and when it’s not important?”

“Every one of God’s commandments is important, Trudy, but one is not always strong enough or even able to pay attention to them all.”

 

In the end, the sleep-over Phoebe had been planning for the winter holiday did not take place.  Trudy heard about what happened while she was at her friend Ellen’s house one Sunday morning. They were playing jacks in her friend’s lace-curtained bedroom. Ellen had just stopped to tighten the rubber band around her long, blond ponytail when her mother asked her to come into the other room. Trudy continued playing by herself as she waited for her friend to return. When Ellen came back, she had a strange look.  She stood above Trudy and looked down to where she was sitting on the floor.

“What happened? “Trudy asked.

“Phoebe’s brother, Larry, killed himself.”

What followed came suddenly, unexpected and unplanned. Without words and at exactly the same moment, both girls burst into laughter. Not a giggle, not a guffaw. But laughter so uncontrollable, hysterical, and empty of reason that as they sat cross-legged on the thick, beige carpet in Ellen’s flowery wall-papered room, their eyes filled with tears, their mouths stretched wide open, and their heads fell backwards so far in their spasms of laughter that they nearly toppled over. This laughter, unreasonable and unrestrained, a duet of disbelief, would never be spoken of again. There were no words.

“I don’t want you to think this is normal,” Ellen said her mother had told her. “The boy was troubled, most probably in treatment.”

 

 Back home later that day, Trudy felt a peculiar numbness as she told her parents about Larry. All trace of hysteria was gone. Mama, who was standing by the sink in a faded housedress, grabbed both sides of her face with her hands and gasped, not bothering to wipe off the grease from the chicken she’d been cleaning. Papa looked up in shock from the want ads in the Sunday paper. He rushed to telephone Ellen’s mother to find out more.

Trudy was tired. She walked to her bedroom and lay down on her narrow bed, resting her head on a flattened pillow. She covered herself with the worn, green quilt Mama had sewn for Trudy’s sixth birthday and stared at the wall alongside her bed. Over the years, the original pale-yellow color of the wall had turned to dull mustard, probably from accumulated soot from the railway below seeping in through the window. There were no pictures on this wall, although Trudy would have liked nothing better than to decorate it. She had an idea once to cut out and paste some magazine pictures. But Mama was afraid the scotch tape holding up the pictures would ruin the paint, and so the wall remained bare.

Her encounter with Larry on the stairs last week was all Trudy could think about. He’d looked so hurt, wounded, humiliated. Crazy thoughts flooded her mind. What did Rabbi Jacobs say or do to him to cause such pain? Should she mention the incident to someone? And what about Phoebe? How was she feeling? Trudy couldn’t imagine.

And Rabbi Jacobs had made her cry too. With her low grades, the anger of most of her teachers, and now her fear of Rabbi Jacobs with his horrible questions and his veiled threats, might she one day want to escape all this as Larry had?

A sudden warm feeling between her legs drew her attention, an unfamiliar sense of wetness. Trudy leaned down under the quilt to check and she saw it: the dark-red blood oozing onto her underwear. “Oh no!” she moaned, crossing her arms tightly over her chest. Very few of the girls in her class had gotten their period yet. She was embarrassed, even angry, to be one of the first.

To her surprise, Mama’s reaction was matter-of-fact when Trudy asked her to come to the bathroom for help. It seemed Mama was prepared for the event. After explaining how to attach the Kotex pad to a sanitary belt, she handed Trudy a colorful booklet written by the makers of Kotex especially for young girls. And what a joyful booklet it was, with photos of gorgeous, smiling “young women”, clear, cheerful explanations of the female menstrual cycle, and the implied excitement that life from now on would bring. Trudy’s eyes lit up as she imagined herself for a moment becoming one of these carefree girls in the booklet.

Mama sat quietly on the flat corner of the bathtub rim, her back against the chipped white-tiled wall, as she watched Trudy who was leaning against the opposite wall reading the booklet. The look on Mama’s face was agitated, as if a whirlwind of thoughts and feelings were spinning about in her mind.  Unexpectedly, she stood up, pulled her daughter toward her, and hugged her tightly. Although taken by surprise, Trudy didn’t resist. She let her mother stroke her kinky, brown head and rested it gently upon her mother’s large bosom.  “About your friend’s brother,” Mama whispered, “No matter how dark life looks, you must never think of such a thing!”

Trudy looked up to see her mother wiping away a tear.

“Why are you crying, Mama?”  

“Because you must be asking questions. About the boy. About why he did this.  And I have no answers.”

 

Early next morning, in the schoolyard before class, the girls in Trudy’s class stood huddled in a circle, busy with gossip. Trudy wandered over to listen.

“My parents say it’s because of Rabbi Wiseman that Phoebe’s family is sitting Shiva.”

“I know, my father said he doesn’t think it’s right.”

“What are you talking about?”

“My father says that suicide is a sin, so if you kill yourself, no one can sit Shiva for you.”

“I heard that’s what Rabbi Jacobs said too.”

“Yeah, and I heard Rabbi Wiseman told him he was wrong.”

“Why’d he say that?”

“I don’t know. Something about the war, about being crazy during the war.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe Rabbi Wiseman was in the war.”

Of course, he was in the war!”

“Maybe he was crazy?”

“Who? Rabbi Wiseman?”

“No, Phoebe’s brother, you dope.”

“So, if you’re crazy, you’re not responsible, and the family can sit Shiva?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Are you going to the Shiva?”

“No, my mother says I’m too young. Are you?”

“No, my mother says it’s no place for kids. I’m glad, really. I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“What about you, Trudy?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged.

A ringing of the school bell interrupted the conversation and the girls rushed to their classroom to find their seats. After hanging up their coats and organizing their schoolbags, they were strangely quiet as they waited for Rabbi Wiseman, their teacher for the first lesson of the day. An undercurrent of tension filled the room as he entered and walked slowly to his desk.  Before speaking, he took a moment to survey the class. He adjusted the black yarmulke on his balding head and straightened his gray-tweed jacket.

“Why?” he asked the class, “does one of the prayers in the Shemoneh Esrei begin by asking the All Mighty to grant us peace and also compassion, but in a line further on, the order is switched and we first beseech compassion and then we ask for peace? Why do you think the order here is switched?”

The room was silent as the class contemplated a possible answer. Without waiting for a hand to be raised, Rabbi Wiseman answered his own question. “For a person to find peace in this world filled with troubles,” he explained, “one must experience compassion. This is the message in this prayer. The order of these words may be interchangeable, but we can never find peace without having compassion.”

Moments passed in silence. Rabbi Wiseman stood looking out the window by the side of the room as if searching for a way to elaborate upon this thought. Only then, did he continue. “You know, dear pupils, that Phoebe and her family have suffered a great tragedy,” he said. “This is the time for you to show her your compassion. She will need the support of her friends.  I hope you will all visit her while she is sitting Shiva.”

 

When she came back home after school that day, Trudy found Mama at the kitchen table mending a pair of Papa’ trousers.  “Hello, mein kind,” Mama looked up. “How was school? Can I make you a glass tea?”

“Okay,” Trudy said. She laid her books on the table and sat down.

Mama got up to fill the kettle and put it on the gas to boil. She took the tea bag she’d used for her own cup and placed it in another glass for Trudy. At the back of the fridge, she found the sponge cake she’d made for Shabbos. She took it out, cut a thick slice and placed it on a plate in front of Trudy.

The tea was hot and Trudy waited a bit before drinking. “Mama,” she queried, “The girls in my class say their parents don’t think they should go visit Phoebe at the Shiva.”

“No?” Mama said, “Why not?”

 Trudy reached for the cake. “Their parents say they’re too young.”

“And what do you think?”

Trudy lowered her head and said nothing.

“Look, mein kind,” Mama began. “Terrible things happen. This I know too well.” She adjusted her dark-rimmed bifocals and stared at the gray and white checked oilcloth covering the kitchen table.

Trudy watched Mama with a worried look.  She knew she was thinking of the war.

When Mama looked up again, she spoke softly but firmly. “When bad things happen to our friends, Trudy, we should not leave them alone. This I also know. You must go visit your friend.”

 “That’s what Rabbi Wiseman said. That we should all go to the Shiva.  But none of the girls are going.  I’ll be the only one.

“You will be doing what is right, ketzele.”

Trudy said nothing. Mama was quiet too. Then she spoke. “I will come with you to the Shiva,” she said.

This took Trudy by surprise. Mama had never spoken with Phoebe’s parents, never participated in any of the parents’ gatherings at school where they might have met.  Mostly these were fund raising events and there was no money for such things. Even Trudy’s tuition was partially subsidized by the school since the family’s earnings were so low. And there was one other thing that worried Trudy: Mama was so different than all the American born mothers of her friends. Those women were so pretty, so well-spoken, and youthful. The kind of mother Trudy often wished she had. But Mama’s endless worries and her foreign accent, her wrinkles and old-fashioned clothes, just the thought of Mama in comparison to these other mothers made her squirm.

“I will come with you,” Mama repeated.

 Trudy hesitated. Then she nodded.

 

The first thing Trudy saw when she and her mother entered Phoebe’s expansive, ranch-style home on the other side of town was a long, shining white, leather couch in the shape of a semi-circle, situated in the center of a spacious, ivory-painted living room. Several well-dressed women were sitting on one side of the couch facing Phoebe’s mother who sat on a low wooden stool opposite them. A group of men were clustered together on the other side of the couch speaking with Phoebe’s father who was on a low stool close by. The mirror on the opposite wall was covered with a cloth. There was no sign of Phoebe in the room.

Mama held Trudy’s hand tightly as they entered the room, and Trudy was grateful for this. Reluctantly, she followed a bit behind Mama’s steps over to where Phoebe’s mother sat. The women on the couch moved over to make room for them. “I’m Trrrudy’s mother,” Mama said as she leaned forward, “I’m so sorry to hear what happened.” The sound of Mama’s accent as she pronounced her daughter’s name caused Trudy to wince, but to her surprise, Phoebe’s mother reached for Mama’s hands and covered them with her own, shaking her head as if in gratitude. Then she turned to Trudy.

“Oh, Trudy, how kind of you to come. Phoebe should be down the hall in her room. Why don’t you go find her?  She hasn’t had any visitors at all. She will be so happy to see you.”

Hesitantly, Trudy left the group of women to go find her friend. She had no idea what to say to Phoebe, and as she walked down the hall, her heart was pounding.  The door to Phoebe’s room was open, and Trudy stood quietly by the entrance, wondering what to do. Phoebe was sitting cross-legged on the colorful, braided carpet in the center of her room reading an Archie comic book. There was a poster of a huge sunflower on the wall, and a yellow-flowered quilt with matching throw pillows covered the bed. A sudden noise of a bird’s wings fluttering upon a narrow sill outside her window caused her to look up.

“Trudy?” Phoebe’s voice rang with disbelief.

“Hi, Phoebe.”

Trudy searched her friend’s face for a sign of welcome. Phoebe rose to greet her, and both girls stood still for a while, each unsure how to proceed, until their gazes met. As she looked into Phoebe’s dark eyes, Trudy saw that they were shining. A bright ray of sunlight flickered through the window and fell against the wall and across the carpet. It filled the room with a gentle warmth. Without thinking, Trudy reached out to hug her friend.

 

Susan M. Susser has taught Academic English at Beit Berl Academic College in Israel for over thirty years. She has an M.A. in French Literature and is a graduate of the creative writing program at Bar Ilan University. She has published short stories in Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal; Kaleidoscope; Tel Aviv Short Stories; Jewish Currents; and Collages & Bricolages.

Share