Three Fires – Michael Serby

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A copse of mourners stood amid a forest of gravestones. The family of Benjamin Kahan was gathered to memorialize him with the reticent dignity characteristic of the man. At 99 years old his few remaining cardiac fibers had passed on, allowing him to die in the last phase of a dream about his late wife Dora.

The small crowd gathered at Mount Zion Cemetery included his two sisters, two nieces and their families, his son Jonathan and, most surprisingly, his cardiologist, who had seen him through two bypass operations and a host of episodes of heart failure over thirty years. They had driven eastward on the Long Island Expressway and local roads for well over two hours to reach the huddled conglomerate of burial grounds that extends for miles, welcoming the remains of Jews, Catholics, Veterans, and Wasps, all in their own segregated compounds. Many of those who grieved at Mount Zion noticed the yellow brick smokestack that loomed over the distant Maple tree border of the cemetery.  It was an unsettling allusion to more dramatic and nightmarish scenes.

Jonathan stepped forward to add a coda to the Memorial service eulogy he had delivered two hours earlier.

“What can I add to what I already said about my father today?” he began. “Well, actually…there is a great deal I saved for this group, our family. Dr.Levine was very important to him, so, doctor, I include you too.”

“I always felt my dad had wanted to be a rabbi like his father.  I never understood why the subject of that revered man was essentially taboo. Even more baffling to me was a refusal to speak about his mother after she died. Recently my father felt compelled to tell me about his parents, sensing the end was coming. “

Jonathan began to cry silently. The assembled relatives shared his resurgence of loss, but Jonathan was actually overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task he was facing.

He looked down into the bed of dirt that would support Ben Kahan’s bones, and he began to speak again.

“What he told me was new but very old, a profound sadness he had endured for much of his life, and a sense of guilt he felt about lying to all of us. We all have some memories or stories relating to his mother, Anna, a lovely, simple woman. She gave birth to you, Aunt Sadie, and you, Aunt Ethel, and is the grandmother of you, my cousins. She also raised my father, but she was not his mother. My real grandmother died when my father was two. His father remarried immediately, and he and Anna had two daughters, who were really half-sisters to Ben Kahan. He kept this secret from the day he confirmed it at thirteen years old until last month.”

Many in the crowd were weeping, others were simply startled. The youngest among them silently calculated the meaning of these facts to each individual.

Jonathan continued in a hushed, strained and measured tone.

“They lived on the Lower East Side, in a tenement on Essex Street. His father was barely able to earn an income as a rabbi since they had left Odessa in 1905 in the wake of the pogroms. so his wife, Davida, was supporting the family. My father said that one day in 1911, when he was two, his mother, Davida, went to work and never returned.”

The family listened now as one organic unit anticipating the next sensation.

“She died in the Triangle Waist Shirt Factory fire, a catastrophe that killed 140 people, many of them young Jewish women, like Davida Kahan. I have learned all I can about that horrific event. The poor women were trapped in a ninth floor sweatshop because their bosses locked all the doors that would have made escape possible.”

“My father did not remember the experience. He thought of Anna as his mother, although she was detached in some ways. After my dad’s Bar Mitzvah, his father told him the story of Davida for the first time. How he was to address it was left completely up to him. “

“ He buried it until he knew he was dying. His last months were consumed with dreams and fantasies, sometimes oceanic, sometimes painful. He was ashamed that he had kept this secret from his sisters. His guilt gave way to ambivalence and then to a conviction that the entire family must know. All of this he imparted to me during many hours of confessional meetings. I never felt as close to him in my life. He told me he always feared that the truth would destroy the family; but, as he faced death, he concluded that reality, the memory of his mother and her death, would strengthen, not weaken, family cohesion and future generations. ”

“So, in a way, this is his deathbed confessional. I’m ecstatic that I’m the agent of his wishes.“

After a pause, accented by a wistful breeze, Jonathan concluded, “ I want everyone to join me in saying Kaddish once more, for Ben and for his mother, Davida Kahan.”

 

***

 

End of day, and deep in numbing labor,

Home and child stirring back to mind,

Sudden flames starting in a scrap bin,

Engulf us like a yellow tidal wave.

Elevator scalding, cannot elevate,

Exits locked and sealed in sight of god.

Smoke and flames, screams and fears in panic,

Women soaring out the eastern casement.

Outside, we rush the fire escape in hope,

Untethered and in disrepair already,

Metal twists and rips apart at once,

I see the crowd in terror far below me.

 

Collapsing. falling, home and child are fading,

Eighteen minutes, and my life is over.

 

***

Following the brief ceremony, the family set forth on a peculiar ritual. Many of them had attended funerals in this area a number of times. Upon leaving the cemetery, relatives would drive a few miles to a particular diner in an adjacent exurb. Today, a table had been reserved for twenty people. Seventeen relatives arrived and were seated between rows of red leather booths. The décor was a garish red, white and silver canvas.

Such gatherings have been an object of psychoanalytic theory. The association of mourning to eating had been noted early in Freudian quarters. Incorporating the deceased was the general idea. But, this luncheon was viewed by its participants in terms of more conscious needs. It was an opportunity to be together a bit longer, to talk to and touch each other before the small crowd expected at the shiva ceremony. It had also been a long day, and everyone was hungry.

Jonathan sat next to his cousin Rachel, amused once again by family lore and individual foibles. She asked some questions about today’s revelations. Jonathan eventually inquired about her son Jared, who was sitting four seats away. Benjamin Kahan had been fascinated by this young man, whose perceptive mind seemed obvious in their conversations.

“What is he doing next?” Jonathan asked.

“He has two more years to complete his Ph.D. in Philosophy. Then he will obviously get a job and support us all.”

Jonathan, laughing, said, “I like that. My father would have been proud. You know,” he continued, “ Dad thought very highly of him. He asked me to give Jared a special present. I want to give it to him and explain the background story. If you’d like to hear about it, come with me after we eat.”

 

After lunch, Jonathan and Rachel comforted and commiserated with their Aunt Ethel and with Rachel’s mother, Sadie. Jonathan said nothing about the void he now felt and his fantasies of seeking the remnants of his real grandmother’s family.  Instead, he embraced his aunts, who both cried intermittently, otherwise saying little. Both  in their nineties, they were not prepared to easily accept any challenge to the structure of their world. Ben had always been their brother, their full brother, even if he was distant at times. They were proud of his wartime record as an engineer in the Manhattan Project, his motivation to travel into his nineties despite his heart disease, and, above all, his protean intellectual strengths. He was their brother no matter who his mother was.

Jonathan touched his cousin’s back, signaling his wish to move on. They approached Jared, who greeted them with a smile and an “Oy vey.”

Jared’s mother laughed.

“Oy vey, indeed,” Jonathan responded.

“When did your father actually spring this on you?” Jared asked.

“About a month ago. He declined so rapidly afterwards that I haven’t been able to digest any of it. I want to just lie on my couch for a week, stare at the ceiling, and think about it all.”

“I think I’ll join you. Do you have two couches?” Rachel commented, followed by her son, “Do you have three?”

Jonathan invited them both to visit him for as long as they could “tolerate it.” He then excused himself, abruptly walked back to his seat, searched his briefcase and came back with a manila envelope.

“Jared, my father asked me to give this to you.”

Jared opened the envelope and found a weathered, wrinkled black leather booklet, with about twenty pages of Hebrew letters in neat, penciled script.

“Thank you, Jonathan. What is this?”

Rachel was also appearing baffled as she perused the text.

“My dad told me that this is a very important document because it is one of the first that were written in both Hebrew and Yiddish. So, this is a story or a religious manuscript and its translation.” He turned to Rachel and said, “Our grandfather brought this with him when he escaped the pogroms in 1905. He had received it from his father, but I can’t tell you how far back it goes or even who wrote it.”

“Jonathan, I can’t wait to look into this. I loved your father.”

“I think my dad figured you’re the academic and would know just what to do with it.”

***

TWO

Early on a Friday morning Jared left Union Square subway station and walked the few blocks to the American Jewish Historical Society and YIVO headquarters. YIVO, or the Yiddish Scientific Institute, is a depository of archives and artifacts from the Pale of Settlement, the section of the Russian Empire where Jews could settle.

Jared had an appointment to meet Dr. Naomi Feldshuh, an Associate Professor of Yiddish Studies at the City University of New York. He had called YIVO seeking a translator for the document Jonathan had given him. The person he spoke to immediately suggested Dr. Feldshuh, but cautioned that she might be too busy. A few days later he received an email from Dr. Feldshuh herself, asking about the potential task. Jared wanted to be able to pose questions as she translated. They soon agreed to meet for as many sessions as would be needed.

In an online search, he reviewed the arc of her academic career. She was one of the acknowledged authorities on the fate of Russian Jews in 1940-41, when the Nazis slaughtered one village after another. Currently she had a grant to study the archives of the societies that had been created in New York by people who had fled those same villages forty to fifty years before the Nazi massacres. Those archives were in the YIVO vaults.

He arrived for their first meeting a few minutes early and noted a three-story red brick building, blending into the scale of brownstones on the block. A large American flag floated over the neo-classical entrance, comprised of Doric columns, a lintel and pediment. Four outdoor posters announced various programs. One exhibit explored “The World of Russian Jewry 1881-1914.” A second one, entitled “Jewish Labor and the Lower East Side” pictured a building on fire. That display would begin in two weeks.

Jared passed through a metal detector and search before heading to the front desk for further instructions. He was told to have a seat. Five minutes later, a woman emerged from the hallway to the right of the desk.

Dr. Feldshuh was thin, with an oval face and curly hair, dressed quite modestly. She smiled as she pointed to the hallway, “Mr. Levine, I am Dr. Feldshuh. Please follow me upstairs to the archives, where we can talk and work. “

Jared noted that she did not extend her hand, so he followed her lead. “Orthodox,” he thought, and, in fact, he was not surprised.

They were buzzed through a door at the end of the hallway, crossed a long library, entered another hallway and climbed a stairway to the second floor. There, they entered the archival section after more security measures were employed.

About half a dozen people sat at their own tables or desks, all poring over screens or paper documents. Dr. Feldshuh led him to a separate area with two small couches.

She began. “So, I understand that the document you want translated is in Yiddish and Hebrew, comes from Russia, is probably of nineteenth century vintage, and you have no idea what it is about.”

“Exactly. But I was also told that it was thought to be an early translation from Hebrew to Yiddish, or maybe vice versa, and was brought to America by my great-grandfather, who apparently valued it. It’s supposed to be some kind of story or maybe it’s Talmudic. I don’t know.”

“But before we go ahead I would like to know more about your work here, if that’s okay.”

“Sure,” she responded. “I always start a course or an assignment like this one by telling the students or the employer how and why I do this. It goes beyond my immediate work here at the moment, but is also the source of these current interests. I do this because of my need to discover and remember history.”

“In 1941, two to three hundred Jewish families, including my own, resided in Miriamplotz, as had their ancestors for a few hundred years before them. The Jews of Miriamplotz had lived through discrimination and brutalities, both official and unofficial. Many people had fled to Europe and America in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.

As the German invaders approached, word of horrors reached the town, but the Einsatzgruppen swept in before anyone could plan to escape. Where would they escape to anyway? My father did flee to the woods and witnessed the slaughter of his village.”

***

The Nazis methodically rounded up everyone and marched them to the small synagogue, herding them in and locking the doors, which were then barricaded with assorted beds and dressers. Then the troops started a fire, burning the entire structure and the Jews of Miriamplotz.

I know this because I observed it. I escaped to the forest in time and was a witness to the events. I lost parents, grandparents and siblings in this fire. I saw flames reach the Star of David, high above the front door, as screams abated. It was July 2, 1941.

I fought as a partisan, barely survived the war, and met my wife in a postwar immigrant settlement camp. She had endured Auschwitz, but she, too, was now alone.

When we came to America, these memories annoyed our cousins, who wanted to carry on their safe American existence and not be troubled by the past. So, my child was born to remember, to study and learn as much as possible, and to help others learn.

***

Jared was dazed by the story as it unfolded, but Naomi Feldshuh brought him back into the moment.

“Now that you know the origins and motives of my work, “ she began, “tell me whatever you can about the document and everything related to it.”

She continued,” You have already indicated that it is considered to be an early Yiddish-to-Hebrew translation…”

He interrupted, “Well, I said it was written in both languages, but I’m not sure which way the translation went.”

“I’m going to suggest that the original would have been in Yiddish, unless this is a straight Talmudic section that was being translated from the Hebrew.”

Jared responded, ”Other than the date of 1905, when my great-grandfather fled, I have nothing else to add.”

“Well, it would have been carried out of Odessa in 1905 by your ancestor during a period of widespread pogroms. It certainly was a time of great fear, and people fled with anything precious they could carry. He made sure this text survived, so it had obvious importance to him. Let’s see why.”

***

THREE

Dr. Feldshuh estimated two to three hourly appointments on successive Friday mornings. They were now almost half-way through their first meeting when she read the first page in Yiddish.

After a few minutes, she began to speak.

“The author starts by identifying himself and his circumstances.

 I am Rabbi Eliezar Kahan , living a holy existence in Odessa. I have seen the work of God, have lived to witness his spoken word, and now know the Jewish people will survive all adversity.

“Wow. Good start,” Jared whispered. “This is a relative of mine, for sure. Is the story dated?”

“Yes. That comes next.”

In the spring of the year 5641 I received a visitor, Duvid Kuperman, a man I knew from the congregation.

 “I have a date converter on my computer,” she went on. After a moment she said “This would have taken place in 1881. That was a very meaningful year, when the pogroms began. ”

“This could have been the father of the man who left in 1905. So I’m assuming Eliezer Kahan was my great-great-grandfather,” Jared added.

“That’s probably right.”

Duvid was greatly…, she struggled for the right word …, ”agitated, or maybe anxious.”

Rabbi,’  he said, ‘I must tell you about my dream. I was walking up a mountain, higher and higher, until my path was blocked by a large bush on fire. The fire continued as long as I stood there.’

I asked him if the fire spread, but he could not remember. He did recall two other men were with him, but could not say who they were.

 I then asked him if anything else occurred, but he told me that he had suddenly awakened, soaked completely through his nightshirt.

I instructed Duvid to let me think about this dream and return to me in the early morning in three days.

A few hours later my daughter came in to announce a visitor, a man from Yelizabetgrad, in turmoil, she thought. He was…”I think unkempt would be the best word.”

‘I am Moshe Schuster and I have come this long distance to see you because I was told you are the wisest rabbi in the South of Russia.’

‘I could have saved you a difficult trip, Moshe Schuster, because I know many more brilliant rabbis than myself all over our world of Jewish settlements.’

‘I am certain you are the man to advise me. I asked our rabbis in Yelizabetgrad and they all named you as a man of great knowledge.’

‘Well, what is the matter that drove you to my door?’

‘It is a dream.’

At this point, Dr. Feldshuh suggested we stop and reconvene the next week. She made photocopies of the pages and said she would check the Hebrew version to make sure it was a translation as it was supposed to be, and also to assess the proficiency of the translator. Jared decided to speak to no one about this before they were finished.

When they met the following Friday, Naomi Feldshuh seemed to have several ideas at once.

“If this story or event occurred in 1881, it may have something to do with the first pogroms. The city of Yelizabetgrad was one of the first sites of persecution that year, and that’s where Moshe Schuster came from.”

“I also think the facts support the idea that we are looking at a Hebrew translation from Yiddish and not the other way around. The following year was the beginning of the initial migration from this area to Palestine, the so-called First Aliyah, and I think the impulse was to preserve the document for a Zionist future. Do we know if any of your ancestors were part of that First Aliyah?”

“No idea,” Jared responded, “but my great-grandfather was in Odessa about 25 years later, so I doubt it.”

“A lot of those people who left for Palestine came back quickly to Russia, so it has to be a maybe,” she concluded.

“By the way, the translation is pretty good, not perfect but pretty good. Now let’s see what Moshe Schuster from Yelizabetgrad dreamt.”

‘Rabbi, I was standing on a precipice, looking out at the vastness of the land below me and terribly frightened because I knew I was going to fall. But something behind me drew my attention, and I turned to see a small tree or some kind of bush in a rage of fire. I could feel the heat from a considerable distance, but the bush was never altered. I drew back from the intense warmth and slipped over the precipice, tumbling into a void. When I awoke I was greatly distressed and wanted to know immediately what this all meant.’

When Moshe Schuster finished his tale, I asked him if anyone else had been there, and he recalled no one else at the scene. I wanted to know if he remembered anything additional, but he could not. Finally, I inquired about his…

“Here again, I think anxiety or agitation fits, “ Dr. Feldshuh noted.

 He said that he himself was surprised at his reaction, that he had never before worried about a dream. He added that he was not a superstitious man, which made his response so puzzling to him.

I told him that I wanted to consider the interpretation of his dream and that we should meet again in the early morning in three days. I had my daughter arrange accommodations until our next meeting.

The next day, as I sat down to review various texts for an understanding of these dreams, a third man requested an audience with me. He announced himself as a traveller who was passing through Odessa. His name was Shmuel Steiner. The night before he had a terrible dream and had screamed so loudly that his innkeeper had awakened him so he would not disturb others.

‘Why do you come to see me about this?’ I asked him.

‘I could not get the images out of my head. I did not know what to do. The kind innkeeper said go see Rabbi Kahan and he will help you.’

‘What did you dream,’ I asked, with some hesitation.

‘I was looking out the window of my house at an endless flat field, but in the distance something was on fire. It moved closer and closer in this field, and I could see it was a burning bush. It seemed the fire would engulf me if it came any closer, but then I woke up, dreading my own death,’ he concluded.

I was both exhausted and stimulated by his account.

‘Stay in Odessa two more days, and let’s meet in the early morning two days from now,’ I requested.

***

The rest of that day and evening I studied Talmudic wisdom to enlighten my thoughts and understanding of these events. The next day I visited my father, the Illul of Odessa.

Naomi spoke to Jared directly, “It sounds like we are going to meet your great-great-great grandfather, and they called him the Illul of Odessa, which means he was considered a Talmudic prodigy.”

Jared was frozen in silence.

We spoke for hours. I confided the stories of these three men and their dreams. He began to speak immediately after I concluded the third man’s nightmare.

‘My son, I believe this is the voice of God, this is a burning bush on the mountain. Let us begin with the number three. There are three men, and the first dream contains three men. There are three dreams of a burning bush. Why this number? Three is harmony, completeness, a balance between two opposites. Perhaps it means we can hope for a world without conflict between the Jew and all other people. There may be other meanings than this. One thing that is known is that something done three times is considered permanent. I believe we are reminded of the burning bush three times to seal the message as complete.’

‘Rabbeinu Bachya tells us that our people are constantly burning with oppression and suffering but always endure like the bush that is not consumed by fire. Other sages have told us that the fire is God himself and is always lighting the tree of Jewish existence.’

After we discussed these disparate but hallowed Talmudic visions, he offered his impressions of each of the three dreams.

“The first dream introduces us to the revelation of the burning bush and informs us that this dream is shared with two other men. This seems straightforward. The second dream is fearsome. The man sees danger, but he cannot avoid the precipice. Despite the threat, the burning bush may be a reminder of a greater fact, the permanence of the Jewish nation. Finally, the traveller, a man who roams our world. He is fixed to one spot as the fire comes closer and closer. His essence, the ability to flee, fails him. The burning bush and the interpretation of this symbol are drawing ever closer to him.’

 After reviewing these thoughts, I left my father and went home to prepare for my meeting with the three dreamers early the next morning.

Naomi Feldshuh took a deep breath, stood up and stretched her arms.

“Jared, there is a lot here, but I must go or I will be late for my next meeting. This is some of the most fascinating material I have ever read. Let’s complete the document next week, see if there is a denouement, and then put our heads together.”

“Amen.”

They both smiled.

***

Jared spent the week dreaming and daydreaming, more about his lineage than the story that was unfolding. Naomi, though, found the text an addiction she craved, so she read and reread it whenever she felt emotional or physical symptoms of withdrawal. They were both exhausted when they met for their final Friday morning conference. She began to read.

‘The next morning all three men arrived early. They appeared like brothers to me then, all the same height and heft, and with similar facial features. They were surprised that the meeting would not be private.

I began by recounting their visits to me and the reasons they had sought my counsel. I recited the details of all three dreams, which were verified by each of the men.

‘What is the meaning of all this? It can’t be a coincidence,’ Duvid Kuperman asserted.

‘It is the voice of God, as I suspected,’ Moshe Schuster concluded.

Shmuel Steiner remained silent.

I told them of my consultation with the Illul of Odessa and of his reading of these passages .

“Yes, he refers to the dreams here as ‘passages’, “Dr. Feldshuh noted.

We had tea, allowing all of us to grow further acquainted.  We could not clarify the meanings of these events any further, so the men left after one hour.

One week later I heard of pogroms engulfing many communities. In the street I encountered an excited man who had been looking for me much of that day.

‘Rabbi, I am a brother of Moshe Schuster of Yelizabetgrad. I am here at his request.’

‘Come home with me and tell me your story.’

Over a glass of tea this man recounted the attack on Jews in Yelizabetgrad. Houses and businesses were targeted, including Moshe’s clothing store. As the mob approached, Moshe told his brother to come see me if anything happened to him. Moshe then entered his shop, where he was consumed by the fire set by the crowd.

After this man unburdened himself of his grief and his fears, he left to go back home and console his family.

‘Moshe’s precipice,’ I thought.

I later saw Duvid Kuperman, who was worried about relatives in a shtetl to the north. He was profoundly affected by the murder of Moshe, as if he himself had died.

The traveler Steiner I never saw again.

I now set down the details of this wondrous tale. I have never heard the voice of God as clearly. We are always aflame and always struggling to be secure, but our people will always endure.

“And that’s how it ends, Jared.”

“Dr. Feldshuh, thanks for this really wonderful work you’ve done. Tell me, what do you make of the document?”

“Well, we can agree with your great-great-grandfather that God created an opportunity to once again remind Jews of their perennial danger but also their ultimate survival and permanence. “

“But there is another way to look at it.”

“This is a story,” she continued. “ The kindling was lit in Rabbi Kahan’s mind by the events of the day. The pogroms of 1881 destroyed any illusion that the Czars and the Russian masses would tolerate a Jewish presence much longer. I told you of the First Aliyah following 1881. I suspect Rabbi Kahan was inspired to create this tale and translate it into Hebrew to be carried to Palestine. It was to be his commentary, so to speak, on the pogroms and the ability of the Jewish people to find the right way to survive. I wish we had some idea why the document remained unread until now.”

“ I think I agree with your analysis, but it seems to me there may be more to this that we will never understand. It is certainly a story, but who can say if this is a tale wholly fabricated by my ancestor or a chronicle of real events. Divinely inspired? I personally can’t get there, but some could. A good story is a good story, whether it’s divinely inspired or not.”

As they left the YIVO Archives she asked, “What will you do with your gift?”

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing.”

“Let me suggest that you consider donating it to YIVO.”

“That’s a nice idea. Let me run it by a couple of people.”

They walked through the corridors and rooms of the building, but their exit was temporarily blocked by a class of children. There was some pushing, some giggling, and a few students who were quiet and attentive. A woman instructed them to listen carefully.

“Class, we are here to see both exhibits. Look on the wall to the left of the door at the photos of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. After we hear from Mr. Katz about this and other important Jewish labor episodes, we will be able to review the world of the Russian Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before they came here.”

Each child acted as before, most of them unaware and indifferent. As he exited, Jared glanced at the photos, noted the children and tried to imagine their futures. He walked by a picture of the burning building the teacher had referred to, but as his skin flushed and his heart pounded, he recoiled and quickly left the building, heading for the grimy subterranean safety of the subway.

1 thought on “Three Fires – Michael Serby

  1. Harriet Forman

    Why is it that God’s “Chosen People” seem to have been “Chosen to Suffer?” Or, Is it to “Test their Faith”? You Decide!

    Reply

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