Waiting

I am always waiting for something.  When I was a child I was waiting for specific birthdays.  For some reason I thought that something very important is going to happen to me when I will be 19, 30 and 45 years old.  I was right so far: I got married when I was 19, my son was born when I turned 30, and I can’t wait for my next birthday to learn what life has in store for me at 45.

I was waiting for my kids to stop getting sick all the time, for my lucky stars to tell me what to do in terms of my career, for my parents to move closer to me, and most of all, for peace in my soul.  I am longing to be content with my life, but some unconscious black spot is always present in the back of my mind.  I feel that I lost my way somehow and not sure where to go from where I am.

I keep thinking that I am on the cusp of some defining event right now.  Everything that is happening around me is telling me that I am waiting for something.  I don’t know what it is.  I just hope it’s worth the wait.

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Waiting

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Promises, promises…

How many times I promised myself something and then found a way not to do it?  Probably hundreds of times just in the month of October.  There is always an excuse not to do something that’s difficult or time consuming or unpleasant…  Let’s see, for the past months I promised myself the following things (and, trust me, all of them warrant exclamation points):

  1.  Go back to gym! (on hold lately due to my wrist surgery on top of my back surgery).  Theoretically, nothing prevents me from running on a treadmill, for example, or doing crunches in my living room, but I am one of those people, who needs a group of fellow sufferers and a merciless instructor to look forward to, not the solitary funny-gym-ecardreflection times on my carpet, and the classes in my gym all require two working hands…  And I still can’t go to Zumba, damn it!  Feeble excuse, I know, I know…
  2. Get on a diet already!  For someone who was able to adhere to Dukan diet for 2 years with great results just to watch it fail spectacularly one day for no good reason, any new diet is a painful commitment.   Yes, I need to cut on carbs, but what about those Goji berries, I am addicted to now?  I have at least three one pound bags stashed somewhere in the depths of my kitchen, and they have tons of vitamins ;).  How can I live without them?  And what about my monthly outings with the best foodie girls in the world?  You know who you are, I love you, guys!  Another sorry excuse…
  3. classy-wastedStop it with the wine!  Pain introduced me to alcohol last year and I’ve become a huge fan of red wine as a result.  Then the trip to Ireland in the summer affirmed my drinker status courtesy of a trip to Teeling whiskey distillery, and my life will never be the same after learning the proper whiskey tasting techniques.  Oh, the wine!  The heavy bodied Cabernet, light and flirty Beaujolais, and special occasions Amarone!  How will I live without you?  Insert a teary Emoji here, I can’t find a shortcut…
  4. Quit bitching about my job!  I have it, shouldn’t it be enough?  Tearful complains to everyone within the earshot are not doing me any good, and probably bored my friends to death by now.  It’s time to bite the bullet and get on with it.
  5. Stop this obsession with Outlander! This got to be the weirdest one.  I never obsessed with a movie, or a book, or with an actor or actress before.  Am I going crazy, people?  The show came to me after reading a review page in The New Yorker this June, the books came in the middle of binge watching Season 1 and whatever was c136a5cce30688f23112fafd3ed5c033out there already from Season 2.  At some point I understood that I just can’t wait the whole week to learn what happened next, and downloaded all 8 books to my Kindle.  By the time Season 2 finale aired I already knew what will be there, but cried my eyes out anyway.  It helps (or doesn’t, depending on the point of view) that the main actors are ridiculously attractive.  What the hell makes me rewatch and reread favorite moments specifically in this series, I will never understand.  I was never a pop culture fan.  Game of Thrones was a binge as well, but nothing will make me watch again the finale of Season 6.  I like the music from it, though.  It’s eerie and beautiful and a little creepy.  I listen to it from time to time on my iPhone and think about various deaths that happened while it played.  Yes, creepy, I know.  Hey, maybe I should subscribe to the workout sessions that Sam Heughan developed, this way I can exercise while feeding my obsession?  OK, the fact I am even considering it has to be the most out of the character thing in my entire life.  Is it the age, people?  It’s got to be the age…
  6. Get out more!  This should be easy, right?  I love museums, theater, hiking and traveling.  So what exactly is stopping me from doing something exciting every weekend?  Thanks to tdf.org Broadway tickets are reasonably priced, my son loves theater, my husband tags along willy-nilly, and I have a bunch of friends that would love to spend a day in a museum with me (at least I like to think so).  My excuse for this one is: our basement reconstruction is not finished, so we need to pick stuff, buy stuff, transport stuff, and so on.  Of course, we’ve been doing it for quite some time, and most of the things we need have already been taken care of.  All right, I am lazy, I guess…  That’s no excuse, but at least I am honest with myself.

It seems I can go on for quite some time with the list of last month’s promises, but enough is enough.  Let’s hope I’ll act on at least couple of them this month.

Promises

What’s in a Name?

This is a review of ‘My Name is Black’ by Orhan Pamuk.

Let me begin by stating that I love this book.  This is my second time reading it, and it still seems to retain the original beauty and mystery upon rereading.

This amazing mystery novel is taking place in the 16th century Istanbul, where a miniaturist (actually a master guilder) has been killed by an unknown perpetrator.  We immediately gather, though, that the murderer is one of the victim’s co-workers, so to speak, another master from the same workshop.  The narrative is broken into separate stories, each told from a different prospective by a different character.  Some of them are told in a voice of a picture, drawn by one of the miniaturists, who are potentially implicated in the murder; one of them is told by a corpse, and some of them are told by the murderer himself, who the author is daring us to identify.

It can be considered a hermetic mystery, although the suspects are not locked up in the same house.  They are, nevertheless, bound to each other and the locale by the rules of their trade and by the sense of impeding doom.  The doom is brought by the different style of painting – the Frankish style, which is slowly reaching the Ottoman empire and infiltrating the painters’ minds.  I feel that we, the people of European culture, cannot adequately appreciate the battle the characters are fighting.  Their whole world is coming to a halt because of introduction of the portraiture into their lives.  While thousands of Islamic miniaturists faithfully copied pictures, created by the great masters before them, and eliminated any indication of a personal style or likeness to real people, the Frankish painters celebrated the difference of style, colors and subjects.  When I try to think what it must have meant to the old Master Osman, who spent his whole life following the lead of the old masters of Herat, never wavering from predetermined path and prescribed arrangements to find out that the Sultan has surreptitiously ordered a book done in Frankish style, it makes my heart ache for him.  Thus, the main conflict of this book is not between the murderer and the victim – it’s actually between East and West, the old style and progress, Renaissance and medieval traditions.

Everything was foreign and difficult to understand for me in this book:  the feelings between Shekure and Black; preoccupation with blindness among the miniaturists; the way the characters said one thing, while actually meaning something completely opposite, and everybody knew it and understood everything correctly; the real fear of developing an individual style of painting; and even the way the murderer was finally identified by the way he drew a horse.  The main female protagonist, Shekure, seems very conceited and dishonest, but it’s totally possible that I misinterpret her actions, since I don’t have a frame of reference to judge them by.  Black, the main character, is the only one, who I kind of understand, because he seems to say what he thinks and is true to his word.  I loved he complexity of his feelings when he is torn between mourning for his Enishte, love and desire for Shekure, and fear of the Sultan’s wrath upon learning that the book that he commissioned from Enishte Effendi is not going to be completed, pictures are stolen, money spent, and two masters from his workshop are dead in the process.

The book invites comparison to ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco, not only because of the title, but also because of striking similarities of the content.  In both books the murders happen in the painters’ workshops and have powerful religious undertones, in both books the killer seeks to stop the progress of thoughts and ideas through elimination of the people, who are curious and like to learn something new; and in both books the person, who actually commits the murders does it out of fear that the life as they knew it is vanishing fast, and they feel that they need to protect whatever is left of it.  I’d love to go into the comparative analysis of these two books, but am afraid that the blog is not a proper place for it 🙂

When I was re-reading this book, I was puzzled by the fact that I didn’t actually remember who the killer was.  How was this possible?  I remembered the kind of soup Esther cooked for her supper (lentil), the name of the slave girl that belonged to Shekure (Hayriye), and the color of Hasan’s sword (red, of course), but the main thing of every mystery novel – the name of the murderer – was lost.  I think it’s because the suspects were so consciously devoid of the individuality, that any one of them could’ve committed the murder under proper circumstances. Yes, they were different human beings, but they had more things in common, than the things that set them apart.  When they had to drew a horse upon the Sultan’s request, all 3 of them drew it in a way that did not reflect who they were, but rather, whose style of painting each of them followed.

In conclusion I just want to add that to me this book represents the triumph of individuality over the masses.  I think this is why Black was melancholy until his dying day – he was fighting the same battle inside his head as his Enishte, and wasn’t sure that celebrating each person’s uniqueness is the right thing according to Koran.

 

 

Perla: A Short Story

Her overjoyed parents named her Perla, and there never had been a better match between the name and its bearer, for her skin had the creamy color and the rosy undertone one customary sees in a mother-of-pearl.   She was the source of almost hysterical joy for her mother, tiny Rochl of the troubled eyes; and unabashed adoration for her father, the imposing Meyer, whose corpulent figure could be found making a nuisance of himself in the nursery at least ten times a day.  Perla was the only living child of Meyer and Rochl Litvak, and her five early departed and fiercely mourned siblings were probably annoying the Almighty every blessed day with their incessant pleas for her health and happiness.  Meyer owned the biggest clothing store in Odessa on the prestigious Deribasovskaya Street, and as such was in the perfect position to shower his precious daughter with the most luxurious layette that could be purchased for money in the year of our Lord 1897.  The elderly grandparents, numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, in short, the crème de la crème of Odessa, were bringing their good wishes along with the mounds of toys and tchotchkes to the sprawling Litvak house in a steady stream for days; and every little trinket was properly cataloged and stored in a safe place, waiting for the time when the baby would surely have the need for it.  It was a huge blow, therefore, when a few months after the happy occasion the family realized that Perla couldn’t hear anything but the most obnoxious noises.

At first poor Rochl was so devastated, that she even voiced an opinion that cast a huge doubt on Adonai’s involvement in the lives of his chosen people, because if He did care about them, He surely couldn’t have punished her so cruelly for the sins she’d never committed.  She was promptly severely reprimanded by Meyer’s minatory stare and a choir of scandalized relatives.  Who was she, after all, to question His will?  Our Lord, obviously, was trying to test the family’s resolve and devotion to Him in these trying times, and so they, the family, had no other choice but to accept the gift and the accompanying challenge with gratitude and submission.  After all, Perla was a woman, and a silent wife might mean a happier husband in a long run.  Assuming there would be a husband, of course.

This pious resolve was tested one more time a year later when Katz’s crazed horse ran amok and reared mightily with a horrifying scream right in front of Litvak’s first floor balcony, where Perla was innocently sitting in her baby crib.  She didn’t make a sound, but kept staring fixedly into space with her bottomless black eyes for hours after the incident, rigid, immobile and utterly unresponsive to the anxious prodding and probing of her mother.  The doctor, who was invited to see the baby, determined that she was in shock and would get better by and by.  In the next few days, however, Perla had her first epileptic seizure, and the fragile hope that she might one day have a semblance of normal life was shuttered once and for all.

Utterly destroyed by this new development, Rochl and Meyer went through the normal circles of hell reserved specifically for the parents of sick kids.  First they consulted the doctors who the extended family and multitude of friends were swearing by, then the most celebrated and highly paid ones, then they moved to the quacks and charlatans, and finally gave up on physicians and magicians alike.  With mute horror and quiet desperation, they accepted the fact that while Perla was a beauty, the likes of which Odessa had not seen since it was founded by an itinerant Spanish warrior turned Russian Admiral a century ago, she was deaf, mute and prone to seizures that plagued her at the most inopportune moments.  In the face of this calamity, tiny Rochl became almost invisible, and Meyer’s good humor retreated into the darkest corner of his soul, to be called upon only on special occasions, like Simchat Torah, Chanukah or Purim, when the public display of happiness (or what passed for it in this instance) was absolutely necessary.  Silence reigned in the once loud Litvak’s house.  Even the naughtiest of nephews were quiet as lambs at the family dinners.

When Perla turned four years old, though, something changed in Meyer’s demeanor.  His generous nature couldn’t cope with his unhappiness in silence any longer.  He opened his house to the impoverished branch of his family and once more it was awash with children’s laughter and adults’ screams.  Even the perpetually sad Rochl came to appreciate the benefits of this arrangement in time.  Seeing Perla playing with her little cousins, one could almost forget her unfortunate condition, because it was obvious that her mind was lively, her attitude cheerful and her behavior always gracious and polite, as befitted a Jewish girl from a good family.  She communicated by means of elegant gestures and timid little sounds, that were almost adorable, and the other children reciprocated in similar fashion.  From afar the whole lot of them looked like a flock of birds, ready to fly away any minute, chirping and warbling contentedly.

As the time passed, Perla grew even more beautiful.  No longer a cute little child, she was a teenager of unsurpassed grace and poise, and countless matchmakers were spending sleepless nights tossing and turning in their beds trying to figure out a way to find her a husband.  Alas, the moment prospective parents of the groom heard about her shortcomings, they were politely refusing all further discussions of the match. By the time Perla was 17 years old, Rochl and Meyer had all but gave up on the idea altogether.  The thought that the worst thing that can happen to a Jewish girl had happened to their dear child crushed them, but they both had learned to live with disappointment.  Rochl was deeply involved in all negotiations around impending nuptials of all family members of marriageable age.  Everybody was supplied with a suitable dowry and the proper lineage of prospective husbands/wives was scrutinized in minute detail by her.  Perla was constantly by her side: always a bridesmaid, never a bride.  And Meyer lost himself in his work.

One day he found himself on his knees before the illustrious person of Madame Farber, noting the length of the hemline she was not entirely happy about.  The widow of a prosperous Kosher butcher, Madame Farber was getting ready for her next marriage, and needed a whole new set of clothes to impress her future husband.  Tall and stout, and a possessor of a fiery temper, she wasn’t an easy customer, and Meyer caught himself swearing silently, as he was attending to her sometimes outrageous demands.

“Just look at this dress!” boomed Madame Farber in a voice powerful, but a little stifled, owing to the tightness of the collar and a snug fit around the mighty waistline.  “It’s way too short; look, I can see the tops of my shoes, and I can’t breathe properly in this bodice!  Who was this thing made for, a stick with short legs?”  Swallowing a comment that would surely have sent the worthy widow storming out of the store, Meyer was trying to come up with a suitable answer when he heard a polite chuckle in the corner.

“If you pardon my interference, Madam and Monsieur,” a young man approached the piece de resistance with a polite bow.  “I happen to completely agree with Madam Farber; this dress was made for a woman of less generous proportions, but, oh, what a beautiful piece of work it is!  Just look at the lines of the sleeves, this perfect combination of ruffles and laces, these exquisite buttons and gorgeous silk inlays!  I must pay you a compliment, Madam, for only a woman of impeccable taste could’ve picked this masterpiece of a dress!  All it needs is a few small alterations and I would be more than happy attend to it, given a chance.”

This tirade was met with astonished silence from both Meyer and his customer.  Eventually, a small wheeze came from the blue ruffled tower that contained Madame Farber.

“If you want something from me, young man,” she announced, “you might consider not wasting your time here.  I don’t pay for compliments.”

“Oh, no, Madame,” smiled the unknown visitor.  “I was just reflecting on the fact that it would’ve been such a privilege to work on this dress and to make its beauty a perfect counterpoint to yours.”

“Who are you, and what are you doing in my store?” demanded Meyer, finally finding his voice in the face of this unprecedented assault on his home turf.

“My name is Benny Rozenthal and I am a dressmaker,” bowed the young man, “I don’t mean any disrespect, Reb Meyer.  I just arrived from Olevsk with my mother and, having heard from other people about your fine establishment, came to offer my services to you.”

“And why do you think that I need your services, Benny from Olevsk?” asked Meyer, laboriously getting up from the floor, where he was stuck during his whole conversation.

“Well, one doesn’t always know what he needs, until he gets it, my mother always says,” sagely answered Benny.  “I could be of a great help to you, Reb Meyer.  I know everything there is to know about making clothes.  My father, God rests his soul, was a dressmaker, as was his father before him.  I was brought up in our small shop among the dress pieces and learned to sew at the same time I learned to talk, I think.”

“Now, that’s something I believe,” muttered Meyer.  “If you sew the same way you talk, I wouldn’t be surprised if your clothes came out dripping with honey, just like your words.”

“You know what, young Benny,” Madame Farber suddenly chimed it, “I might allow you to work on my dress, and if I like it, I’ll put in a good word for you with Reb Meyer.”

“And who will pay for it if you don’t like it?” inquired Meyer, feeling his blood pressure rising.

“I will!” Benny almost screamed.  “I will reimburse you the cost of the dress and the materials, but I swear, Reb Meyer, if you give me this chance I won’t disappoint you!”

Needless to say, the dress was a smash hit with Madame Farber.  She requested that Benny would alter all of her clothes from that point on, and he happily agreed to it.  In time, his bubbling personality and genuine passion for clothes gained him Meyer’s approval as well.  And so it happened, that one stormy October evening about six months after the fateful encounter in Meyer’s shop, Benny was invited to the Litvaks’ house for dinner.

He arrived on time, dressed in his best clothes and clearly scared out of his wits.  His desire to make a good impression and not screw up was so obvious, that Rochl caught herself wanting to smooth his hair in a motherly way and tell him that everything will be all right.  He resolutely looked at his shoes, which were shined to perfection for the occasion, and grew red as a beat when somebody asked him a question.  When all the family members filed in and took their places at the dinner table, Benny finally lifted his eyes and beheld Perla for the first time.

If Benny was shy and tongue tied before that, Perla’s appearance effectively put the kibosh even on the little sounds that were coming from his direction.  Meyer didn’t know what to make of it, because he spent countless hours telling stories about Benny’s gift of gab.  Not willing to embarrass his guest, though, Meyer gently stirred conversation toward the subjects that required only minimal participation from him, with Rochl supplying most of the table talk.  When Benny left, stammering words of appreciation and eternal gratitude for the honor undeservedly granted to him, and leaving a pleasant smell of cologne in his wake, the family verdict was that the boy was pleasant, but unremarkable.  Meyer was a little perplexed and in the morning resolved to ask Benny about the mystery of his behavior at dinner.

“Say, Benny, what happened to you yesterday?” demanded Meyer, the moment he laid his eyes on Benny.  “I spent the past few months peddling your talent to my family, and you chose the first time you meet them to go all silent on me!  What was that all about?”

“Oh, Reb Meyer, I must be honest with you,” answered Benny.  “At first I was just too intimidated by your wonderful family, but when I saw your daughter, I suddenly understood that my whole life was about meeting her.  She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I am just so happy, I could cry!  Reb Meyer, I know I can’t offer much to a wife yet, but you know that I am a good dressmaker, possibly even a great one, I will work even harder for her.  I have ideas on how to grow the business, I will do whatever you want… Can I send a matchmaker to you?”

Meyer was shocked into silence.  “You know, Benny,” he allowed finally, “I knew you’re a little not right in your head the first time I met you, but now I am sure of it.  Are you saying you want to marry Perla, my daughter?”

Benny paled like a ghost and a fine sheen of sweat accumulated on his brow, but he drew himself up with all the willpower he possessed at that moment and said, “I do, don’t I?”

Meyer, as opposed to Benny, was turning puce.  “You know that Perla is deaf and mute, right?  Because if you are joking about my daughter’s future, I am going to rip your vest off and stick it into your mouth right now, you little schmuck!”

Benny looked properly horrorstruck at the suggestion and at the revelation alike.

“Well, I didn’t know that, still being a newcomer in Odessa,” he retorted after a considerable silence, “but it seems to me that I can talk for the both of us.  So what if she can’t speak or hear?  Her eyes tell me she has a brain behind them, and that’s good enough for me. Maybe that’s why God gave me the gift of speech, because He, in His great wisdom knew, that my perfect match won’t have it at all!  What do you say to that, Reb Meyer?”

“Oh, Benny,” tears were welling in Meyer’s eyes and spilling on his mustache.  “That’s not all.  I love Perla more than life and she is my only child, but honesty compels me to tell you that she also has seizures from time to time, and that no matchmaker would even come close to our house anymore.  Can we just go back to work and forget this conversation before I embarrass myself any further by crying like a baby?”

At this Benny sat on the chair heavily, and lowered his head.  Minutes went by, and he still wasn’t moving.  Meyer wiped his eyes, turned away from him and went to the counter to open the cash register before the first customer’s arrival.  Suddenly he heard Benny’s voice, quivering with emotions. “Well, Reb Meyer, here’s what I have to say about this: Maybe our Lord wants to try me more than everybody else.  She is not perfect, but neither am I.  I don’t have a lot of money, and I am not a very learned man.  Maybe I’m not an ideal son-in-law, as she’s not the ideal bride my mother probably had in mind for me, but I tell you one thing, Reb Meyer, I will love her and respect her for as long as I shall live, and that should count for something.  Now, since the matchmakers won’t come to your house, as you’ve said, can I send my mother to you to discuss the match?”

Soon the whole Odessa was talking about the newcomer Benny Rozenthal marrying the deaf and mute daughter of Meyer Litvak.  People were offering different opinions on the subject, with the most prominent one being that money controls everything, and for a chance to become Meyer’s business partner, the young Benny sold himself into a loveless and problematic marriage.  Some kind souls whispered these suggestions to Benny’s mother, whose sharp tongue told them off in no time; someone congratulated Benny on a spectacular climb in rank at the expense of the health of his future progeny, at which point Benny lost his cool and went at that kind soul with his fists.  But most people were just curious about the details of the agreement and the size of the dowry.  Meyer and Rochl were ecstatic, Benny was almost incoherent with happiness, and Perla – well, nobody could really tell.  She was a dutiful daughter and would doubtless become a dutiful wife.  That much was expected of her, the rest was a mystery.

The wedding took place during Chanukah in order to capitalize on the month of Kislev’s auspiciousness.  The bride was radiant, the groom was handsome, and everybody agreed later that the whole affair was beyond reproach.  The young couple settled in a separate wing of the Litvaks’ house and started their journey together.  It was apparent to everyone that Benny adored his young wife.  He started to recognize her sounds and gestures, and very soon was able to communicate with her on some level.  When he couldn’t get his point across, he would enlist the help of the youngest cousin Beila, who was still living at the house.  In a few months after the wedding Rochl realized that Perla was pregnant, and the family became delirious with joy and apprehension.  If abundance of prayers could guarantee robust health, Benny’s and Perla’s child would’ve lived to 120 without a single sneeze.  Rochl, of course, was worrying herself sick thinking all kinds of crazy thoughts.

“Meyer, Meyer, wake up,” she would whisper tragically into his ear in the middle of the night.  “I just can’t fall asleep; I keep thinking what would happen when Perla’s child would get hungry when everybody is sleeping already and start crying, and she won’t hear the baby, and Benny would have to get up and get her…  This is unseemly, isn’t it?  And the baby would wake up the whole house, and we can’t just barge into their rooms and tell her to get up, and Benny would get angry, and Perla wouldn’t understand why; oh, why, oh, what have I done in my life to deserve all this?”

Meyer would try to comfort her as best as he could, but he was secretly wondering about the same things.  If human pregnancy was any longer, the whole family would’ve ended up in a mental institution en masse from sheer amount of stress.  Against all odds, though, Perla carried the child without too many problems.  Her delicate condition made her even more beautiful and mysterious, and the seizures had not occurred at all.  She looked content and happy, and was obviously thrilled by her new life.

In due time, a perfect baby girl announced her arrival into this world by a squeaky wail, and the whole family immediately switched from worries about the pregnancy to worries about the newborn’s health and progress.  The young parents were overcome with joy at their daughter’s birth.  Perla communicated her desire to name the baby Rose by gesturing toward the enormous bouquet of eponymous flowers Benny had brought her, and he promptly agreed (although at that point he would’ve agreed to anything and everything she wanted).  Rochl’s worries turned out to be a complete non-issue, because Perla seemed to possess an uncanny ability to sense everything that was related to her precious child, and would jump off her bed the moment Rose would emit even a tiny cry.  Lacking the ability to pronounce her daughter’s name, Perla called her Sisha, and the sibilant sounds of this tender sobriquet were so weirdly comforting and sweet, that soon the official name was used on special occasions only.  The elephant in the room, of course, was Sisha’s ability to hear, and the whole family applied itself fervently to the task of determining it by clapping their hands above the baby’s pink ears unexpectedly, banging the doors when she was asleep, squeezing the shrill sounding toys when she was peacefully sitting in her mother’s lap, and doing so many similarly ridiculous things in hopes to elicit the long-awaited response, that Benny had to put a polite but firm stop to it after a while.  In a few months, it became apparent that Sisha’s perfect shell-like appendages could, indeed make out all the sounds, and at that point the exhausted relatives of various degrees of kinship at last ceased their enthusiastic assaults.

Happiness eventually found its slow way into the huge Litvak-Rozenthal household, and Rochl was finally able to say the prayers to our Lord without brushing off the tears.  But what do we humans know about the designs of our Lord?  Nothing.  Why do some people live all their unremarkable lives in a relative peace, and yet others are constantly tested, like somebody is trying to make sure that they do have the ability to survive through the darkest times?  No answer…

When Sisha was two years old, troubled times began to affect the cosmopolitan Odessa.  The year was 1917, and Russia was trembling under the stress of revolution, that uprooted families, made brother fight brother and turned the whole world upside down.  People were huddling together in their kitchens and whispering horror stories about pogroms and armies of rabble that were advancing on the city from different sides.  Criminal elements were controlling everything, and having a business was rapidly becoming a liability rather than an asset.  It became dangerous to be outside after dark, especially for people of means, so men hurried home the moment their work was done.

One balmy summer afternoon Benny realized that there was no way he would be able to make it to his house on time.  As he promised Meyer, he was able to grow the business exponentially since his marriage to Perla, but times being what they were, he reckoned that maybe immigration would be the best way to protect his family from the uncertainties and brutalities of the Russian Revolution.  It was this important matter, therefore, that he wanted to discuss with his French business partner, who promised to stop by the store.  Once the Frenchman came in, they fell into such a spirited discussion of difficult times, that a bottle of wine was produced and promptly consumed.  Puzzled by this circumstance the partners called for another bottle and some food, and then decided to relocate into one of the last reputable kosher restaurants to finish off the conversation.  Benny wasn’t drunk yet, just a little tipsy, and still in possession of his mental faculties.  Thinking about schlepping home in the dark coastal night wearing at three-piece suit with a handsome gold watch in the pocket made his stomach contract with fear.  He really didn’t relish the thought of being robbed, beaten, or, most likely, killed for it.  Suddenly his gaze fell on one of Perla’s numerous young cousins, Schmuel, who was passing by.

“Hey, Schmuel, bubele, come here, please,” beckoned Benny the gawky teenager.  “Can you take my watch to Perla and let her know that I’ll be home late?  I really don’t want to walk around with it in my pocket.”

“Sure, Uncle Benny, I’ll do it,” said Schmuel.  “But I am not going home right away.  I’ll be there in an hour or so, all right?”

“Well, now you have a watch to track the time, so I am sure you’ll make it there before long,” quipped Benny.  “Monsieur Fisher and I have a long night ahead of us.”  With that, he returned to the restaurant to continue with his business.

Young Schmuel didn’t go home in an hour.  He met with his friends and they started a game of soccer, during which he forgot all about Benny, his watch and whatever it was that he promised to do.  And so it happened, that Benny, unsteady on his feet and very much in his cups, arrived to the Litvaks’ house first.  Now, Perla, obviously, couldn’t nag him for being drunk, but she made her displeasure known.  Her facial expression, along with gestures and those queer sounds she made in lieu of conversation were well understood by Benny, but at that moment he felt like he was reproached unfairly.  Wasn’t he preparing everything for the family’s move to Paris?  Didn’t he deserve some reprieve from work and home life?  He thought he did, which he let Perla know by stating it firmly, wildly waving his arms in the process.  By the way, where might his watch be, he inquired by drawing a picture of what he thought was his watch in the air.  Perla, in her righteous indignation at this idiotic question just shrugged and turned to leave.  Benny, his reflexes affected by excessive libations, tried to take her hand, but missed and inadvertently hit her on the shoulder.  When she turned to him, not understanding, he made a move to hug her, but overshot and almost fell on her, pushing her against the door.  Taken completely by surprise, Perla lost her balance and fell with a small cry.  Benny wanted to help her up, but she pushed him away and ran out of the room.  He followed her, trying to apologize incoherently, but she moved with the speed of light.  Within moments she was opening the wardrobes, taking his clothes out and throwing them on the floor.

“Perla, what are you doing?” yelled Benny, finally mastering control over his tongue.  “Would you please stop that?”  But she wouldn’t stop.  Baby Sisha woke up and started to cry in her crib.  When Benny tried to take her out, Perla pushed him away from the crib and stood in front of him, white with fury, hands akimbo, blocking the baby with her body.  She made the sign of a cross with her fingers, then bumped her fists together, then made a strange curling motion with her fingers by her temples, and finally shook her head.  Benny was at a loss for words.  At this point, various family members started to show up, summoned by the commotion.  Rochl almost passed out, recognizing the sign of a domestic conflict.  In the midst of shouting, baby’s cries and Benny’s imploring pleas, Perla was as still as a mountain, not moving an inch, obsessively repeating her confusing pantomime.

“What is she saying, for God’s sake?  What is she saying?” despondently wailed Benny.  Alcohol was rapidly disappearing from his body, leaving him weak and covered in perspiration.

“Uncle Benny,” whispered Cousin Beila.  “I think I know what it is, but you’re not going to like it.”

“Beila, honey, please just tell me, and never mind what I like,” pleaded Benny.

“All right, Uncle Benny.  She says, only Russians hit each other, Jews never do.  See, cross means Christians or Russians, I guess; fist bumps are for hitting, then she kind of makes the curling motion for the side locks and shakes her head, like, no?  I am scared, Uncle Benny, I never saw her in this state.” Beila said, sniffing.

Everybody got really quiet.  In this total silence Perla pointed to Benny, then to the door, and kicked whatever article of his clothing was closest to her.  Benny froze.  He fell to his knees and apologized profusely.  He tried to hug her legs, but she wouldn’t allow it.  Rochl finally fainted, and this upped the general mayhem by a couple of points.  Meyer ordered everyone out of the room, so Benny and Perla might try to resolve this nightmare on their own.  The family discreetly listened behind the closed doors to the one-way conversation, which culminated in Benny’s agonizing sobs.

Suddenly someone rang the doorbell, and people ran to the door, as if they were expecting a miracle worker to come in and solve all their problems.  When the door opened, it revealed the young Cousin Schmuel, who came in dirty, tired and perfectly happy, having just won a game.

“Hey, everybody,” he trilled, ignoring the long faces.  “Sorry, I’m late.  Uncle Benny will be late as well; I saw him at the restaurant with some French guy.  Here is his gold watch; I am supposed to give it to Perla.”

Let me now draw a curtain over this pathetic scene.  Perla never took Benny back, no matter how much he begged, explained himself, and swore of undying love.  Rochl and Meyer both interceded on his behalf, but were firmly rebuffed, much to their bitter disappointment.  Cousin Schmuel was utterly destroyed, justly blaming himself for the whole mess.  The family did not immigrate to Paris and was taken apart by the events of the Russian Revolution, civil war and subsequent repressions.  Benny died in Gulag, alone and miserable, accused of being a Polish spy.  Rochl and Meyer soon followed him to the early graves; their family ruined, their possessions expropriated and their way of life obsolete in the new world. Perla lived with her daughter until the end of her days, mute and withdrawn, moving furniture from room to room in fits of impotent anger.  Baby Sisha grew up to be a strong-willed young woman, fiercely protective of her mother.  She had accepted her life as a daughter of the enemy of the people and a mute harridan, and made the best of it, graduating from the Odessa University with a degree in chemistry.  She perished during World War II when the hospital where she was working as a nurse was bombed by the Luftwaffe planes.

As my grandmother, Beila, was telling me this story, she would always emphasize the fact that nobody ever understood Perla’s visceral reaction to the only mistake Benny had made in his entire life.  For years, whenever somebody brought it up, she would just repeat her pantomime about Christians and Jews, then turn away and refuse all further communication attempts.  She left this world, taking the answer with her, mysterious, defiant and beautiful, as God intended her to be.

First Story

OK, guys, don’t laugh at me, but I am working on a story.  Not only it’s a first story I am writing in about 24 years, it’s also in English, the language that still mystifies me from time to time.  It’s a work in progress, and it’s been consuming me for about 2 weeks.  I joined the Writing Club, and this is going to be a submission entry for one of the writing prompts.  To be perfectly honest with you, I find it a little disturbing that it’s rather easy for me to write something using a prompt, but the subject of the original story hasn’t revealed itself to me yet.  Vagueness, thy name is… well, you know what my name is, or at least some of you do.

I used to want to write a historical fiction novel, but lately got very intimidated by the  Outlander saga.  So much research!  Where do I find the time?  I would have to get right all of the period details, the accents, the food, the clothes…  not to mention to have a compelling story line… OK, not historical fiction, then.  I don’t like sci fi, so that particular genre is not for me by default.  Maybe not mystery either, since I don’t know enough about detective work.  Unless, of course,  I would be able to write a historical mystery like Umberto Eco or Orhan Pamuk, which, of course, is safe to say, will never happen.  I love both of these writers, but what they do with words and ideas is way out of my league.  Talking about intimidation!  These two can put a lid on my fragile resolve by simply being present on my book shelf.  However, The Daughter of Time is written in a different vein, but is a historical mystery nevertheless.  Hmm, I might think about that one.  OK, let’s continue inventory.  Comedy?  I don’t think so.  Romance?  Not a chance.  Drama, maybe?  Who knows.  Definitely not the non-fiction.  I am fed up with dystopian novels.  Could be fantasy, though… Or mythopoeia… You bet I can’t pronounce that one, but as long as I can spell it, it works. How will I ever chose?

The story I am writing right now would probably fit into ‘realistic fiction’ genre.  The writing prompt was: write a fictional story based off of a story one of your grandparents has told you.  This assignment somehow spoke to me.  I thought about my grandmother, who told me exactly 10 stories about her childhood and adult life, and I think I remember all ten of them.  She wasn’t a great storyteller, she was a science person, so when she chose to tell me something, it had to be something special.  So, without further ado, I present to you the first couple of paragraphs of my very first story.  Let me know what you think!

Perla (working title)

 Her overjoyed parents named her Perla, and there never had been a better match between the name and its bearer, for her skin had the creamy color and the rosy undertone one customary sees in a mother-of-pearl.   She was the source of almost hysterical joy for her mother, tiny Rochl of the troubled eyes; and unabashed adoration for her father, the imposing Meyer, whose corpulent figure could be found making nuisance of himself in the nursery at least 10 times a day.  She was the only living child of Meyer and Rochl Litvak, and her five early departed and fiercely mourned siblings were probably annoying the Almighty every blessed day with their incessant pleas for her health and happiness.  Meyer owned the biggest clothing store in Odessa on the prestigious Deribasovskaya Street, and as such was in the perfect position to shower his precious daughter with the most luxurious layette that could be purchased for money in the year of our Lord 1898.  The elderly grandparents, numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, in short, the crème de la crème of Odessa, were bringing their good wishes along with the mounds of toys and tchotchkes to the sprawling Litvak house in a steady stream for days; and every little trinket was properly cataloged and stored in a safe place, waiting for the time when the baby would surely have the need of it.  It was a huge blow, therefore, when a few months after the happy occasion the family realized that Perla couldn’t hear anything but the most obnoxious noises.

At first poor Rochl was so devastated, that she even voiced an opinion that cast a huge doubt on Adonai’s involvement in the lives of his chosen people, because if He did care about them, He surely couldn’t have punished her so cruelly for the sins she’d never committed.  She was promptly severely reprimanded by Meyer’s minatory stare and the choir of scandalized relatives.  Who was she, after all, to question His will?  Out Lord, obviously, was trying to test the family’s resolve and devotion to Him in these trying times, and so they, the family, had no other choice, but to accept the gift and the accompanying challenge with gratitude and submission.  After all, Perla was a woman, and a silent wife might mean a happier husband in the long run.  Assuming there would be a husband, of course. 

The Sound of Silence

I have to admit I am loving this Daily Prompt challenge!  It’s a written assignment that provokes thoughts about the topics I normally wouldn’t consider, I think.

One of the daily prompts I’ve missed was Silence.  It’s a quiet word.  It extended its sibilant tentacles towards me as I was idly browsing the Word Press pages, and I understood that now the time has come. I need to write about it.

I simultaneously like silence and abhor it, depending on the mood and situation.  It’s something I’ve learned to appreciate and use to some extent quite awhile ago.  All of us married people and parents to boot know how effective it can be when employed in domestic conflicts, and what devastating consequences the well placed hours of muteness may unexpectedly produce.  It’s scary how much can be lost and found by simply withholding the sound.

Silence can be peaceful and ominous, companionable and  withdrawn, still and buzzing with excitement.  How can absence of vibration, lack of stimulation of our hearing organs, basically nonexistence of any action be interpreted in so many different ways?  I guess this ability to assign different meanings to the same process (or the lack thereof) is what makes us human.  We use our own personalities as a canvass, on which our life experiences are painted, and the sound of silence and its many connotations are among the brushstrokes of humanity that we add to the sequence of events that compose our lives.

I started this blog because the silence inside me grew too loud.  I’d like to know what will happen if I turn it into words.

However, I think at this point I am out of adjectives, synonyms and figures of speech altogether, so I bid you all good night.

Silence

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

If I had known what this book was about I probably wouldn’t have put it on my list.  However, I am happy I’ve read it, after all.  At least the knowledge that I missed it while in college won’t weigh on my conscience any longer.

The positive things about The Jungle are, obviously, the writing style, which is great, and makes the experience of reading about extremely unpleasant material not only bearable, but actually enjoyable; the immense work that went into researching the subject, and of course, the reforms in the meat packing industry, which followed publication of this book.  I read that the author actually worked undercover for a meatpacking company for seven weeks to get a better understanding of what was it actually like.  I am sure he also read Das Kapital as well for the final chapters…

The book details the miserable life of the family of Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago in the early twentieth century.  Whoever can work, is working in the meatpacking factory in different capacities.  Whoever can’t, is biding their time until they grow up or get their health back and start working.  And no matter what these people do, they can’t get above the poverty line.  Everything is going bad for them.  If they get but a moment of respite, you, the reader, can be sure it will turn into ashes in the next chapter.  I can count less than five positive moments in the whole book.  Now, I am not a person, who is only reading novels with a happy ending, or avoids negative subjects.  I was a teacher of Russian Literature, for heaven’s sake, depression is my dear friend and comrade (a nod to Upton Sinclaire, as it might be), but even in Dostoyevsky’s novels the narrative doesn’t consist solely of tears, deaths and betrayals.  I guess in 1905 negativity was called realism.

The main characters, Jurgis and Ona, are extremely likable, so reading about all the horrible things that befall them over the course of this exercise in misery and futility called life really pained me.  From the moment they arrived to America everything is going wrong for them.  You might ask why a bunch of village people, who lived on their farms in the woods of Lithuania all their lives and have no other skills except working the land and raising the cattle thought they can make it in the big city like Chicago without knowing the language and understanding the rules of the new country.  It’s not like they were starving back home.  Life wasn’t easy for them, of course, but they could at least put some thought into their future before immigrating.  Believe me, I know all about immigration, having gone through similar trials and tribulations.  As it was, they condemned themselves to the life of unskilled workforce, which is not pretty in any time period.  For me, the premise was a little shaky.  The love story between Jurgis and Ona is very touching, but it adds very little humanity to the book.  It’s first and foremost a socialist pamphlet, and I’ve read enough of those in the University back in Ukraine.

I felt that I couldn’t relate to most of the characters, mainly because the reader doesn’t get to see the inner workings of their minds.  Events take precedence over the inner world in The Jungle.  The only person, whose inner monologue we can kind of follow, is Jurgis, and even for him, it’s hit or miss.  I couldn’t shake off the feeling that his mantra “I will work harder” was later repeated by Boxer in Animal Farm by George Orwell, with even more depressing results.

As a matter of fact, all the while I was reading The Jungle, I felt that Animal Farm was written partially in response to it.  Socialist revolution, hailed in The Jungle as the ultimate salvation of the working people, which revitalized beaten down Jurgis to the point of becoming human again, makes the full circle in Animal Farm, which was written 40 years later and had the benefit of following actual history of building a socialist society in Russia, subsequent to revolution of 1917.  I think a parallel study of these two books would be a great idea.  Obviously meatpacking industry of the nineteen hundreds wasn’t an ideal place, and the reforms that were passed by Congress after the release of The Jungle are the proof of it, but I wonder whether it would occur to Upton Sinclair, that if he was living in the socialist society, his book would never even get published.  The fact that the public and Congress have reacted to this novel could never have happened in the Soviet Union or in its satellite countries of Eastern Europe.  Graft, attributed by Sinclaire to capitalist way of life was so endemic in the socialist society, it would put Scully to shame. Such is the irony of the world.

I think I don’t want to talk or think about this book anymore.  The best I can say about it is that it was very influential in its time and it hasn’t aged well.

On to My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, an old friend, which I can’t wait to read again!