The ProsenPeople

Excerpt: There Was a Rabbi of Kiev

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 | Permalink

British writer Howard Jacobson's most recent collection of essays, The Dog's Last Walk (and Other Pieces), was published last week by Bloomsbury Publishing. Below's excerpt from the book, "There Was a Rabbi in Kiev," offers a Yom Kippur tale. 

Now that another Yom Kippur has been and gone without my being struck down for my sins – the biggest of them, in some eyes, being my failure to honour the Day of Atonement in the way a Jew is supposed to – I will unfold to you a tale. Call it an expiation for not adequately expiating.

There was a rabbi . . . Jewish parables always begin that way, and as often as not situate the rabbi in Kiev. So: there was a rabbi of Kiev, only he was not a rabbi in the conventional sense, he was rabbi of Radical Scepticism employed by the City Duma’s Department of Rationalism to keep an eye out for irrationalism of a specifically Jewish variety. Though known to his friends as Viktor, he always jumped when someone shouted: ‘Abram!’ This was because Abram was the name his parents had given him. Whenever this happened, Viktor – who had bestowed that name upon himself – fell into a fit of guilt about his parents and prayed for forgiveness from the God in whom they had believed but he did not. Immediately he had finished praying he castigated himself for showing such disrespect to his own non-belief. Viktor did not keep Shabbes, took no notice of any of Jewish festivals and ate whatever took his fancy. Because lapwing was high on the list of foods proscribed in Leviticus, he would have tucked into lapwing with gusto had he known where to buy it. Food was scarce in Kiev, so it was difficult enough to find ossifrage, let alone lapwing. Snails, however, were a delicacy he indulged. Hare, whether grilled or in a pie, likewise. And as for the bacon he fried in butter every morning, as an accompaniment to blood pudding – so many slices, fried for just the right number of minutes, a little salt, a little pepper, a dash of oyster sauce – why it was almost a religious ritual to him.

But he was troubled by an inconsistency. If he could dine on bacon without a qualm, and pork sausage, and ham hock, and chitterlings – and there was even one dish he adored of which the chief ingredient was pig’s rectum – why couldn’t he ever eat pork belly? If he saw pork belly on a menu, he needed to drink a glass of water. If he sat next to someone eating pork belly, he had to fight himself from retching. Once, when one of his colleagues ordered pork belly, Viktor announced he would have to leave the table while the food was being consumed.

‘Viktor, you must be able to explain this inconsistency,’ his colleague demanded. But Viktor was unable to. It wasn’t what the pork belly looked or tasted like that was the problem. It was the pairing of the words, the concatenation of sounds – pork and belly. Pork on its own – fine. He loved a pork sandwich with apple sauce. Belly, too, as a discrete entity, presented no problems. He had once eaten yak’s belly on a visit to Moldavia and loved it. But put pork and belly together and he was disgusted. It was a foreignness – a transgression even – too far.

So what was it a transgression against? Viktor was damned if he knew.

And thus it was, inversely, with Yom Kippur, that’s to say thus it was when it came to ignoring it. Hanukkah, Pesach, Purim – Viktor respected none of them. He saw his co-religionists – except that he was no longer a religionist himself – spruced up for synagogue and shook his head over them. Slaves to custom and superstition! Drones of blind faith! On festivals where it was necessary to be solemn, Viktor took pains to be seen laughing. Where it was necessary to laugh, Viktor wore his longest face. On Yom Kippur, however, he kept out of the way. He saw no reason to apologise for his sins since he was always apologising for his sins. Why set aside a single day to atone for your guilt when you’ve been atoning for it all year? Indeed, if he had a besetting sin it was being over-conscious of sinning. So he certainly wasn’t going to fast. But – and this he knew to be illogical – he wasn’t going to be seen not fasting either. No ostentatious banquets at his favourite restaurants on this day. No public retching over another diner’s pork belly.

On the Day of Atonement the sun happened to be shining and Viktor decided on a walk. He nodded at some of the Jews he knew – more pallid than ever on account of doing without food – and suddenly, despite having enjoyed a hearty breakfast, he felt hungry. A snack was all he needed. A biscuit or chocolate. He wandered down a side street and found a tobacconist and confectioner’s. Here he bought a bar of chocolate. But he hesitated before breaking into it. On this day of all others, he thought, couldn’t I at least have done without chocolate?

But that was a superstitious thought and he put it from him. He ate a piece of chocolate, was disappointed in the taste and decided to throw the rest away. What made him decide to throw it in the Dnieper when he could have tossed it over any fence he didn’t know. But when he got to the river, he realised he couldn’t do it. It looked too much like tashlich, or casting your sins upon the water, a ritual Viktor scorned. As though you could drown a sin! He walked on but knew he had to get rid of the remaining chocolate. Why? Did he think he could half atone for half a sin? Did he think he might be half forgiven?

It would seem, he admitted to himself, that I am half superstitious.

Once he got back to his department offices he confessed his recidivism and offered to half resign. At a hurriedly convened meeting of councillors he was fired altogether. You have to make your mind up in this institution, they told him.

There is no moral to this story. But as someone who recently bought a bar of chocolate on Yom Kippur I can vouch for its essential truth.

From The Dog’s Last Walk, by Howard Jacobson, published by Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright ©Howard Jacobson 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Excerpt: All Our Wrong Todays

Wednesday, June 21, 2017 | Permalink

Excerpted from All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai's latest science fiction novel.


1

So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.

That means nothing to you, obviously, because you live here, in the crappy world we do have. But it never should’ve turned out like this. And it’s all my fault-well, me and to a lesser extent my father and, yeah, I guess a little bit Penelope.

It’s hard to know how to start telling this story. But, okay, you know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases. All that dazzling, transformative technology our grandparents were certain was right around the corner. The stuff of world’s fairs and pulp science-fiction magazines with titles like Fantastic Future Tales and The Amazing World of Tomorrow. Can you picture it?

Well, it happened.

It all happened, more or less exactly as envisioned. I’m not talking about the future. I’m talking about the present. Today, in the year 2016, humanity lives in a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder.

Except we don’t. Of course we don’t. We live in a world where, sure, there are iPhones and 3D printers and, I don’t know, drone strikes or whatever. But it hardly looks like The Jetsons. Except it should. And it did. Until it didn’t. But it would have, if I hadn’t done what I did. Or, no, hold on, what I will have done.

I’m sorry, despite receiving the best education available to a citizen of the World of Tomorrow, the grammar of this situation is a bit complicated.

Maybe the first person is the wrong way to tell this story. Maybe if I take refuge in the third person I’ll find some sort of distance or insight or at least peace of mind. It’s worth a try.

2

Tom Barren wakes up into his own dream.

Every night, neural scanners map his dreams while he sleeps so that both his conscious and unconscious thought patterns can be effectively modeled. Every morning, the neural scanners transmit the current dream-state data into a program that generates a real-time virtual projection into which he seamlessly rouses. The dream’s scattershot plot is made increasingly linear and lucid until a psychologically pleasing resolution is achieved at the moment of full consciousness...

I’m sorry-I can’t write like this. It’s fake. It’s safe.

The third person is comforting because it’s in control, which feels really nice when relating events that were often so out of control. It’s like a scientist describing a biological sample seen through a microscope. But I’m not the microscope. I’m the thing on the slide. And I’m not writing this to make myself comfortable. If I wanted comfort, I’d write fiction.

In fiction, you cohere all these evocative, telling details into a portrait of the world. But in everyday life, you hardly notice any of the little things. You can’t. Your brain swoops past it all, especially when it’s your own home, a place that feels barely separate from the inside of your mind or the outside of your body.

When you wake up from a real dream into a virtual one, it’s like you’re on a raft darting this way and that according to the blurry, impenetrable currents of your unconscious, until you find yourself gliding onto a wide, calm, shallow lake, and the slippery, fraught weirdness dissolves into serene, reassuring clarity. The story wraps up the way it feels like it must, and no matter how unsettling the content, you wake with the rejuvenating solidity of order restored. And that’s when you realize you’re lying in bed, ready to start the day, with none of that sticky subconscious gristle caught in the cramped folds of your mind.

It might be what I miss most about where I come from. Because in this world waking up sucks.

Here, it’s like nobody has considered using even the most rudimentary technology to improve the process. Mattresses don’t subtly vibrate to keep your muscles loose. Targeted steam valves don’t clean your body in slumber. I mean, blankets are made from tufts of plant fiber spun into thread and occasionally stuffed with feathers. Feathers. Like from actual birds. Waking up should be the best moment of your day, your unconscious and conscious minds synchronized and harmonious.

Getting dressed involves an automated device that cuts and stitches a new outfit every morning, indexed to your personal style and body type. The fabric is made from laser-hardened strands of a light-sensitive liquid polymer that’s recycled nightly for daily reuse. For breakfast, a similar system outputs whatever meal you feel like from a nutrient gel mixed with color, flavor, and texture protocols. And if that sounds gross to you, in practice it’s indistinguishable from what you think of as real food, except that it’s uniquely gauged to your tongue’s sensory receptors so it tastes and feels ideal every time. You know that sinking feeling you get when you cut into an avocado, only to find that it’s either hard and underripe or brown and bruised under its skin? Well, I didn’t know that could even happen until I came here. Every avocado I ever ate was perfect.

It’s weird to be nostalgic for experiences that both did and didn’t exist. Like waking up every morning completely refreshed. Something I didn’t even realize I could take for granted because it was simply the way things were. But that’s the point, of course-the way things were . . . never was.

What I’m not nostalgic for is that every morning when I woke up and got dressed and ate breakfast in this glittering technological utopia, I was alone.

3

On July 11, 1965, Lionel Goettreider invented the future.

Obviously you’ve never heard of him. But where I come from, Lionel Goettreider is the most famous, beloved, and respected human on the planet. Every city has dozens of things named after him: streets, buildings, parks, whatever. Every kid knows how to spell his name using the catchy mnemonic tune that goes G-O-E-T-T-R-E-I-D-E-R.

You have no idea what I’m talking about. But if you were from where I’m from, it’d be as familiar to you as A-B-C.

Fifty-one years ago, Lionel Goettreider invented a revolutionary way to generate unlimited, robust, absolutely clean energy. His device came to be called the Goettreider Engine. July 11, 1965, was the day he turned it on for the very first time. It made everything possible.

Imagine that the last five decades happened with no restrictions on energy. No need to dig deeper and deeper into the ground and make the skies dirtier and dirtier. Nuclear became unnecessarily tempestuous. Coal and oil pointlessly murky. Solar and wind and even hydropower became quaint low-fidelity alternatives that nobody bothered with unless they were peculiarly determined to live off the main grid.

So, how did the Goettreider Engine work?

How does electricity work? How does a microwave oven work? How does your cell phone or television or remote control work? Do you actually understand on, like, a concrete technical level? If those technologies disappeared, could you reconceive, redesign, and rebuild them from scratch? And, if not, why not? You only use these things pretty much every single day.

But of course you don’t know. Because unless your job’s in a related field you don’t need to know. They just work, effortlessly, as they were intended to.

Where I come from, that’s how it is with the Goettreider Engine. It was important enough to make Goettreider as recognizable a name as Einstein or Newton or Darwin. But how it functioned, like, technically? I really couldn’t tell you.

Basically, you know how a dam produces energy? Turbines harness the natural propulsion of water flowing downward via gravity to generate electricity. To be clear, that’s more or less all I understand about hydroelectric power. Gravity pulls water down, so if you stick a turbine in its path, the water spins it around and somehow makes energy.

The Goettreider Engine does that with the planet. You know that the Earth spins on its axis and also revolves around the Sun, while the Sun itself moves endlessly through the solar system. Like water through a turbine, the Goettreider Engine harnesses the constant rotation of the planet to create boundless energy. It has something to do with magnetism and gravity and . . . honestly, I don’t know-any more than I genuinely understand an alkaline battery or a combustion engine or an incandescent light bulb. They just work.

So does the Goettreider Engine. It just works.

Or it did. Before, you know, me.

4

I am not a genius. If you’ve read this far, you’re already aware of that fact.

But my father is a legitimate full-blown genius of the highest order. After finishing his third PhD, Victor Barren spent a few crucial years working in long-range teleportation before founding his own lab to pursue his specific niche field-time travel.

Even where I come from, time travel was considered more or less impossible. Not because of time, actually, but because of space.

Here’s why every time-travel movie you’ve ever seen is total bullshit: because the Earth moves.

You know this. Plus I mentioned it last chapter. The Earth spins all the way around once a day, revolves around the Sun once a year, while the Sun is on its own cosmic route through the solar system, which is itself hurtling through a galaxy that’s wandering an epic path through the universe.

The ground under you is moving, really fast. Along the equator, the Earth rotates at over 1,000 miles per hour, twenty-four hours a day, while orbiting the Sun at a little over 67,000 miles per hour. That’s 1,600,000 miles per day. Meanwhile our solar system is in motion relative to the Milky Way galaxy at more than 1,300,000 miles per hour, covering just shy of 32,000,000 miles per day. And so on.

If you were to travel back in time to yesterday, the Earth would be in a different place in space. Even if you travel back in time one second, the Earth below your feet can move nearly half a kilometer. In one second.

The reason every movie about time travel is nonsense is that the Earth moves, constantly, always. You travel back one day, you don’t end up in the same location-you end up in the gaping vacuum of outer space.

Marty McFly didn’t appear thirty years earlier in his hometown of Hill Valley, California. His tricked-out DeLorean materialized in the endless empty blackness of the cosmos with the Earth approximately 350,000,000,000 miles away. Assuming he didn’t immediately lose consciousness from the lack of oxygen, the absence of air pressure would cause all the fluids in his body to bubble, partially evaporate, and freeze. He would be dead in less than a minute.

The Terminator would probably survive in space because it’s an unstoppable robot killing machine, but traveling from 2029 to 1984 would’ve given Sarah Connor a 525,000,000,000-mile head start.

Time travel doesn’t just require traveling back in time. It also requires traveling back to a pinpoint-specific location in space. Otherwise, just like with regular old everyday teleportation, you could end up stuck inside something.

Think about where you’re sitting right now. Let’s say on an olive-green couch. A white ceramic bowl of fake green pears and real brown pinecones propped next to your feet on the teak coffee table. A brushed-steel floor lamp glows over your shoulder. A coarse rug over reclaimed barn-board elm floors that cost too much but look pretty great . . .

If you were to teleport even a few inches in any direction, your body would be embedded in a solid object. One inch, you’re wounded. Two inches, you’re maimed. Three inches, you’re dead.

Every second of the day, we’re all three inches from being dead.

Which is why teleportation is safe and effective only if it’s between dedicated sites on an exactingly calibrated system.

My father’s early work in teleportation was so important because it helped him understand the mechanics of disincorporating and reincorporating a human body between discrete locations. It’s what stymied all previous time-travel initiatives. Reversing the flow of time isn’t even that complex. What’s outrageously complex is instantaneous space travel with absolute accuracy across potentially billions of miles.

My father’s genius wasn’t just about solving both the theoretical and logistic challenges of time travel. It was about recognizing that in this, as in so many other aspects of everyday life, our savior was Lionel Goettreider.

5

The first Goettreider Engine was turned on once and never turned off-it’s been running without interruption since 2:03 p.m. on Sunday, July 11, 1965.

Goettreider’s original device wasn’t designed to harness and emit large-scale amounts of energy. It was an experimental prototype that performed beyond its inventor’s most grandiose expectations. But the whole point of a Goettreider Engine is that it never has to be deactivated, just as the planet never stops moving. So, the prototype was left running in the same spot where it was first switched on, in front of a small crowd of sixteen observers in a basement laboratory in section B7 of the San Francisco State Science and Technology Center.

Where I come from, every schoolkid knows the names and faces of the Sixteen Witnesses. Numerous books have been written about every single one of them, with their presence at this ultimate hinge in history shoved into the chronology of their individual lives as the defining event, whether or not it was factually true.

Countless works of art have depicted The Activation of the Goettreider Engine. It’s The Last Supper of the modern world, those sixteen faces, each with its own codified reaction. Skeptical. Awed. Distracted. Amused. Jealous. Angry. Thoughtful. Frightened. Detached. Concerned. Excited. Nonchalant. Harried. There’s three more. Damn it, I should know this . . .

When the prototype Engine was first turned on, Goettreider just wanted to verify his calculations and prove his theory wasn’t completely misguided-all it had to do was actually work. And it did work, but it had a major defect. It emitted a unique radiation signature, what was later called tau radiation, a nod to how physics uses the Greek capital letter T to represent proper time in relativity equations.

As the Engine’s miraculous energy-generating capacities expanded to power the whole world, the tau radiation signature was eliminated from the large-scale industrial models. But the prototype was left to run, theoretically forever, in Goettreider’s lab in San Francisco-now among the most visited museums on the planet-out of respect, nostalgia, and a legally rigid clause in Goettreider’s last will and testament.

From the book All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai. Reprinted by arrangement with DUTTON, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © Elan Mastai, 2017.

Going Tribal

Tuesday, June 06, 2017 | Permalink

Excerpted from Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To (Blue Rider Press, April, 2017) the latest collection of essays by New York Times Bestselling author Annabelle Gurwitch that Oprah's Magazine calls a "vivacious, hilarious, madcap memoir."

When it was time to find “the next place” for my parents, my mother decided she wanted to go tribal.

My mother wants to return to “her people,” only she doesn’t mean our family. Between cherished long-​standing grudges and more recent perceived slights, she is on speaking terms with only a handful of family members. No, she’s making the great leap backward, aligning herself with our ancestors.

My grandfather’s family, the Maisels, were teachers and rabbis. We would like to believe that the namesake of the Maisel Synagogue in Prague, a mayor who held office during the sixteenth century in the Jewish ghetto, was a relative. That’s about as much as we know about them, but we do know a lot about my grandmother Frances’s lineage.

Menasha Lidinsky, later Anglicized to Moshe, and then Morris Laden, my grandmother’s father, fled the Ukraine with his wife, Sarah, when my grandmother Frances was five years old. Fleeing the pogroms, they came over on the Prinz Oscar, having made their way to Germany from Russia in 1913. Moshe’s profession was listed as dry goods salesman. My great-​grandfather was what villagers referred to as a “swaybacked-​mule junk dealer,” or peddler, trudging from town to town earning a meager living selling goods off of an ancient animal’s back. If we had a family crest it would feature a donkey, a potato, the one pot we had to piss in, and the family motto: “My feet are killing me!” (Moshe and I actually have a lot in common, as the day‑to‑day life of a swaybacked-​mule junk dealer is much like being an author on a book tour. I’ve sold books from the trunk of my car.)

Bubbie Sarah and Zayda Moshe opened a dry goods store across the street from the famous Jewish Exponent newspaper on Pine Street in downtown Philadelphia. They had an apartment above their store, like many shopkeepers at the time. They never ventured far from their community, spoke mostly Yiddish, and lived in fear of that multitasking God who had enough time to concern himself with not only the workings of the entire universe but with whether a tiny subset of a single species on a spinning blue ball in the outer suburbs of the Milky Way dared to defy his grand plans by mixing dairy and meat.

This is why the Tel Aviv Gardens is on our list of senior living facilities to visit this weekend. It’s on a twenty-​five-​acre campus with housing options that range from independent-​living apartments to hospice care. My mother imagines that her mother, Frances, our nanny, would have felt at home there.

Nanny never spoke of spirituality, but she did believe that Jews were a kind of chosen people— the tribe entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the planet spic-​and-​span. Cleanliness was not just next to godliness for her, it was a devout calling. In the same way that nuns see themselves as brides of Christ, Nanny pledged herself to Ajax, lord of germs, whose dominion covered the expanse of surfaces in her home and the domiciles of her offspring. Her idea of keeping a kosher kitchen entailed producing flavor-​free food; at least that’s how it seemed to us grandchildren.

A typical meal at Nanny’s might include iceberg lettuce, meat, and a starchy vegetable. Lettuce was scoured and scrubbed with so much vigor that each lifeless leaf emerged from these interrogation sessions virtually translucent. These were the years when lima beans were the most exotic item offered on dinner tables in suburban America. Not only was it a punishment to eat them, Frances seemed to want the beans to suffer for their own failure to be more appetizing. The legumes would be liberated from a can, only to be subjected to a pressurized moisture-​extraction process that included several rounds of squeeze-​drying in layers of paper towels. Chalky and granular; eating them sucked the moisture from your mouth.

Beef was purchased only from a kosher butcher, but you could never trust people entirely, so it was subjected to repeated rinsing and salting and then would be secreted into paper towels for additional dehydration. Biting into it was like gnawing on particleboard. The number of trees sacrificed for meals prepared in Nanny’s kitchen is unfathomable. I hope those quarters we collected in the ubiquitous tree-​planting campaigns for Israel in the 1970s added to the aggregate number of trees in the world enough to balance it out.

My mother never showed any interest in keeping kosher, but she’s pining for Nanny, whose personality she experienced as exacting. Death has conferred an almost saintly quality on her memory. My mother has adopted Nanny’s mercurial housekeeping habits and is reaching further back to Bubbie’s dutiful observation of holidays. My mother wants to attend the weekly religious services at the Gardens. She has started lighting Sabbath candles. She pictures her grandmother’s hands gently resting over her own as she mouths the words to the prayers recited in a language that she herself never bothered to learn.

She’s also taken to needlepointing mezuzah covers and prayer shawl holders, which in my secular household become makeup bags. I have so many of these that my makeup bags have their own makeup bags. During my childhood, she crafted intricate Japanese designs, but her lotus flowers and white cranes have given way to mournful scenes of Eastern European village life. It’s all Chagall, all the time. The way she churns these things out, you’d think she was commissioned by an army of nomadic zealots who need carrying cases for their talismans. I tried to convince my son to take his lunch to school in a sack decorated with a forlorn goat wrapped in a prayer shawl playing the violin. For the record, why wouldn’t that goat look pained? Inner monologue of Chagall goat: Why do I have to play the violin and wear this schmata? The Bible is like a goat genocide, can’t I catch a break? It’s really hard for a goat to keep a scarf on. My son looked at me like I’d suggested he pack his sandwich in a moldy sneaker.

Mom rarely attended services during her childhood, and although my parents insisted on a Jewish education for us, after my sister and I left home, neither she nor my dad went back to temple. Not even once. Suddenly, forty years of secular life are immaterial to her newfound identification.

Actress and New York Times Bestselling author Annabelle Gurwitch's new collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories about My Family You Might Relate To, is one of Oprah's May book picks. You can read about it in, "Shalom Y'all, bittersweet family tales from the Deep South" in the J Weekly of Northern California.

You Have to Have Been a Refugee Yourself

Thursday, September 29, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from Asylum: A Survivor's Flight from Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France by Moriz Scheyer


I know that I will provoke the criticism in some quarters that I talk too much about Jewish refugees—as though nobody else existed, as though others had not suffered too.

It is absolutely true that others—innumerable others—were made to suffer, no less than we. And I have not failed to make mention of that. I myself happen to be both a refugee and a Jew; and one who bears witness must bear witness to his own personal experiences. But there is another point, too; and that is that whatever those others were made to suffer at least had some connection—direct or indirect—with the War. Their treatment at the hands of Germany was unprecedented and absolutely without justification. But, for all that they suffered, at least it was not the case that their freedom, their existence, their lives, were forfeit—forfeit from the very outset—simply by virtue of their birth. Even Hitler did not have the audacity to question whether they were actually human beings.

Whereas Goebbels, Hitler’s official cultural spokesman, stated quite baldly in a speech immediately after the ‘Advent’ of the Third Reich: ‘If I am asked whether the Jews are not also human beings, I can only reply: are not bugs also animals?’

What was perpetrated against the Jews, moreover, had nothing to do with the War. The project was undertaken long before the War, and would have been carried out systematically—in accordance with a clearly laid-out programme of extermination—even if there had been no War. And it was perpetrated against unarmed, defenceless people, who were unable to mobilise themselves, unable to resist. Perpetrated against powerless victims, who had already been deprived of their rights, despised, insulted, and humiliated in both body and soul. Perpetrated as a result of the impetuosity—as cowardly as it was crazy—of a madman, with the willing, happy participation of his ‘Comrades of the People’.

It was perpetrated, too, without the civilised world daring to demand that it be stopped, or at least daring to make clear its abhorrence. Only later, much later—only when it was already far too late—did we begin to get all those fi ne expressions of solidarity, which came in the context of general war propaganda. And, while it was being perpetrated, states which had every opportunity to do so, and could have done so without cost, failed in their duty to open their gates to the persecuted. The granting of a visa was a process invariably attended with all manner of obstacles, restrictions, provisos and caveats, before—through a grate in the wall, reluctantly, like alms to a troublesome beggar—the document was finally dispensed. Or not dispensed, as the case might be. The lowliest consular official was suddenly a god.

No: others had to undergo all kinds of trials, certainly. But our journey of spiritual misery—to speak of nothing else—was without parallel. You have to have been a refugee yourself, to have lived as a Jew under the sign of the Swastika, to know what that really meant. And whatever anyone might say with regard to that... it would still be too little.

How could it all have happened? We survivors—we who went through it—we, surely, have the right to keep asking that question. While at the same time bearing witness—in our name, and in that of the silenced six million. The martyrs: men, women and children, whom the ‘Führer’—the Leader of his murderous Germany—hounded to their deaths.

From the book Asylum: A Survivor's Flight from Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France by Moriz Scheyer. Copyright © 2016 by Moriz Scheyer, translated and with an epilogue by P.N. Singer. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

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Extra Diapers, Two Bottles, Four Cans of Evaporated Milk, Five $20 Bills

Thursday, July 21, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from Leaving Lucy Pear: A Novel by Anna Solomon

If they were coming, this was the night. The pears had stayed yellow and hard for so long that Bea had started to despair, but they were finally ready to pick. The moon was a quarter full. The afternoon’s wind had gone limp. Midnight came and went. Bea counted to five hundred for extra measure—silently, so she wouldn’t wake the nurse—then she took up the infant from its bassinet, wrapped it in her aunt Vera’s angora shawl, and crept down the cellar stairs in her bare feet.

The stairs to the cellar were granite, and cold. The original wooden ones had burned with the original wooden house in 1873. Bea did not know about the fire but she could smell it, because the cellar was the one part of the house that hadn’t needed rebuilding and its walls retained the flavor of ash. She moved toward the bulkhead door as fast as she could, feeling along the wall with her free hand, careful not to bump the handles of shovels and hoes, though the shovels and hoes had been through far worse. They had witnessed flood and fire. They had been variously cared for and abused by generations of gardeners, had been used to plant tulips and to dig graves. They had even, once upon a time, been in the presence of another unwed mother and her infant. Knowing this might have put Bea’s own suffering in perspective. But she did not know and she had not been taught perspective. She was eighteen, the daughter of ascendant Boston Jews who had sent her away to Eastern Point in a black, curtained limousine the day she started to show.

The bulkhead door was heavier than she expected, its diagonal slope demanding that it be lifted as much as pushed. She had unlocked it from the outside before going to bed but she hadn’t tested its weight and now the thing didn’t budge. She pressed harder. The cellar was her only way out—she had tested the doors on the first floor and every one either shrieked or squeaked or groaned. She pushed again. If she put the baby down, it would cry. Bea started to pant with panic. The cellar roof seemed to be dropping, the walls squeezing. She climbed the bulkhead steps until she was bent nearly in two, the infant squeezed into the small space between her thighs and chest, and tried to open the door with her back. Her legs shook. Sweat sprang at her neck. She was still soft and weak from the birth two weeks before, her right eye bloodshot though she had no memory of pushing, no memory of any of it, nothing until a baby was being handed to her, clean and silent, like a doll her mother had bought. She was lucky, Bea understood—Aunt Vera had hired a doctor who had studied in Germany with the father of twilight sleep. There had been morphine, there had been scopolamine—these, according to Aunt Vera, would do more to liberate women than the vote. Bea understood that she was supposed to understand herself to be lucky. She understood that she must have pushed, and that she should be glad not to remember. She pushed now, using her neck, her shoulders, every muscle in her body. At last the door gave an inch, then two, then lightened so quickly Bea was following it—she had to scramble to catch up before it slammed on the ground outside. She looked behind her, above. The hinge had given a sharp cry. She went stiff waiting for another sound, the nurse’s heavy footsteps, her heavy call: Beatrice? She waited until her breath came and quieted her heart. Then she stepped out into the night.

Through the near trees she could see the far ones in the orchard down below. Slowly, her eyes adjusted, and she saw the pears themselves, their waxy orbs glowing greenly in the three-quarter dark. Her mouth watered and Bea, embarrassed by this bodily secretion, turned her thoughts to her Plan.

Walk to orchard.
Wake infant.
Nurse infant.
Change infant.
Check inside paper sack: extra diapers, two bottles, four cans of Borden’s evaporated milk, five twenty-dollar bills.
Set infant under most plentiful tree.
Run.

From Leaving Lucy Pear: A Novel by Anna Solomon, published on July 26, 2016 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Anna Solomon, 2016.

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Mort, May 1947

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman

The domestic, feminine scene unfolding before Mort did nothing to improve his spirits. Upstairs, in his brother’s apartment, substantial preparations were being made. Not just the brushing of hair and the tying of sashes. Serious words were being spoken from man to man, from father to son. Mort pushed away his breakfast plate and frowned.

Thirty minutes before they were supposed to leave, there was a thudding of footsteps down the stairs and a quick knock on the door. “Got to go! See you there!” Abe’s voice rang with excitement. Mort had assumed they would all walk over to the synagogue together. “What do they need to get there so early for?” he grumbled at his wife. Knowing better than to defend her brother-in-law, Rose shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she answered.

Mort had been dreading this day, the day of his nephew’s bar mitzvah, for months. In the weeks leading up to it, the increased noise and activity of his brother’s family overhead agitated him. He found himself imagining different scenarios to go with every thud and thump he heard. Was Abe’s wife, Helen, testing out a new cake recipe? Was his nephew Harry trying on his new suit? What were the other boys laughing about? Mort tortured himself in this manner for several weeks. He was a sharp, thin man, and in the month before the bar mitzvah he had lost at least ten pounds. His increasingly angular appearance alarmed his wife, but everyone else was too busy to notice.

Rose had been up earlier than usual that morning to make sure the girls were ready on time. Hair ribbons were neatened and his three daughters, clad in matching yellow dresses, were lined up in front of him after breakfast. “They’re like a row of spring daffodils,” Rose entreated. “Don’t you think so?”

Mort looked up, but he was an unappreciative audience. Judith was almost twelve and seemed too old for matching dresses. She was fidgeting in the line, anxious to get back to the book she had been forced to leave on the kitchen table. Every week, Mort insisted that Judith present him with her chosen pile of library books for approval. Every week, Judith asked Mort if he wanted to read one of her books too, so they could discuss it. Every week, he declined.

Mimi, the prettiest of the three, was the most comfortable on display. She was only eight, but already she carried herself with a stylish grace that Mort found unfamiliar. Mort thought she looked the most like Rose. Mimi was forever making cards for friends and family members with pencils and crayons that she left all over the house. Last year, she found her father’s card in the kitchen trash pail the morning after his birthday. She ran crying to him with it, waving it in her hand and asking why he had thrown it away. “My birthday is over,” he explained. “I don’t need it anymore.”

Dinah, the baby of the family, had the most trouble keeping quiet during Mort’s inspection. She was only five, and though she had been taught not to ask her father too many questions, she couldn’t seem to help herself. “What’s your favorite color?” she blurted out, eyes wide with anticipation. Mimi, hoping the answer might give her some insight regarding the design of next year’s birthday card, seemed eager for the reply. But the response was of no help. “I don’t have one,” Mort said.

After Mort nodded his silent endorsement of the girls’ appearance, the family was ready to go. He usually took the lead during outings like these, leaving everyone else struggling to match his quick strides. The girls knew better than to try to walk alongside him. Even Dinah had stopped trying to hold his hand years ago. Instead, they had taken to walking single file on family outings, like unhappy ducks in a storybook, with Rose bringing up the rear.

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Copyright © 2015 by Lynda Cohen Loigman. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press.

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Seating Arrangements

Thursday, March 31, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Dinner Party: A Novel by Brenda Janowitz


Sylvia left the most difficult thing until the end. She had a habit of doing that—leaving things she didn’t want to do until the end. She’d done it before her wedding, deciding minutes before she walked down the aisle who would give her away in her father’s absence. She’d done it before Gideon’s Bar Mitzvah, deciding the day before who would light each of the thirteen candles on his cake. And she’d done it the year Sarah and Becca went away to college on the same day, deciding only two days before which parent would drive which girl.

She was doing it again now. The night before her guests were to arrive, Sylvia was finally tackling the seating arrangements. She knew the key to any successful dinner party was the placement of the guests.

She put each of the names on tiny little cards. There was her family: she and Alan, her daughters Sarah and Becca. As she wrote their names in her fanciest script, she couldn’t help but feel a tug of emotion. Another year without Gideon. She knew that his work with Doctors Without Borders was important, but she hated the idea of him spending the holiday all alone, in a tent with no electricity.

Next she filled out the cards for Becca’s boyfriend’s family. There was the Boyfriend, Henry, and his parents, Ursella and Edmond. The Rothschilds. She wrote their names slowly, carefully, adding a flourish to her script on the U in Ursella’s name and the E in Edmond’s.

Finally, she brought herself to make out cards for Sarah’s boyfriend and his mother. She wished that Sarah would break up with Joe. And she wished she hadn’t been guilted into inviting his mother. (She’d only done so after the poor woman had a near-breakdown in the market on Front Street.) If anyone could ruin this dinner party, it was the Russos. Sylvia hastily wrote out cards for Joe and his mother. She wrote them so carelessly, in fact, that their names were barely legible. Valentina looked more like Ballerina, which she most certainly was not.

Next came the tiny sterling silver apples that would hold each place card. Sylvia started with the easiest ones. She and Alan would each occupy a seat at the head of the table, hers closer to the kitchen so she could check on the food as the meal progressed. Next, the Rothschilds. The Rothschilds should each have a seat of honor, so that was easy, too. Edmond would be seated to her right, Ursella to Alan’s right, and Henry to her left. Once the guests of honor were placed, she stood back from the table to admire her handiwork.

Now came the hard part. Where would she put Joe’s mother? Valentina had never been to their home before, but Sylvia knew that she’d be the most likely to cause a scene. She always spoke a decibel higher than most other people, like Stanley Kowalski yelling for Stella. And who knew what sorts of things she considered proper dinner conversation? She would put Valentina on Alan’s left. Surely he’d be able to manage her throughout the course of dinner. Alan had a way of speaking very softly. As a child, he was cautioned to be seen and not heard. And now, as the head of pediatric cardiology for Connecticut Children’s Hospital, he was accustomed to people listening carefully to him. There was never an occasion to raise his voice; he always had the floor.

That left the girls and Joe. She put Becca next to her beau, and Sarah next to her. The only spot left for Joe was across the table from the girls, next to his mother. Maybe they would just talk amongst themselves.

From The Dinner Party: A Novel by Brenda Janowitz, on sale April 12, 2016, from St. Martin’s Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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It's a Practical Thing, Love

Monday, March 14, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World by Susan Silverman.


The quiet of nighttime. The girls are asleep and I can sit beside them in silence, feeling in sync with their neshamot, souls. Elohai neshama she’natata bee, tehora hee. My God, the soul you gave me is pure.

Aliza slept as she had since birth, on her back with her arms straight up at her ears. Her hair was still damp and sweet from grape-scented shampoo. I kissed her soft, dimpled fingers, recalling a story her teacher had told me that afternoon. Aliza had stood in the middle of a game the kids were playing and held up her hands, like a traffic cop. “Hey, stop!” she said loudly. The other children stared as Aliza turned to Debbie, a severely hearing impaired child who often sat on the sidelines, and reached out her hand. “Come, it’s your turn now.”

I kissed my girl’s cheek and whispered how much I loved her. Then I perched on the edge of the bed where Hallel was sprawled. She had tossed and turned in her sleep ever since she could move independently—side, back, tummy—mumbling as she moved. What was she dreaming? She was a child of cheeksqueezing love (she squeezed our cheeks) and stubborn rage, who had, in her younger years, shown cannibalistic tendencies. “I love you like crazy-cakes, my funny, kind-of-scary girl,” I whispered to my now four-year-old, still fierce but no-longer-chomping- on-children child. “May you always be safe, healthy, and well fed. You mine fo-eva.”

My girls were safe and cozy in the soft cotton sheets my mother had bought them. (“Honey, never buy the girls sheets with fewer than a 250-thread count.”) My mother was always so clear about what we needed. She gave us things I didn’t ever consider until we had them. Extra-soft sheets for the kids. Wrinkle-free travel clothes for Yosef. A loofah sponge for me. It really did soften the hard, dry bottoms of my feet. Our light-brown duvet cover smelled like vanilla because my mother had put a small net bag of scented gels in the wooden trunk at the end of our bed, “to give your sheets a slight scent of vanilla essence, like the scented oil you like.” “How come you’ve never noticed the vanilla?” I asked Yosef as I held the blanket to my face.

It was as if my mother had an Excel spreadsheet of what her children needed and when, from birth to death. “Oh, I guess when you’re thirty-three-and-a-half you’ll have to loofah the bottoms of your feet in the shower.” She kept me apace with what she perceived as the demands of my age. Someday, when I’m old, I’ll get a letter from her executor with a bottle of Nivea hand cream with age-spot remover with a letter telling me how I should dry my hands before applying it. Not wet, so that the cream dissolves, but damp so it traps the moisture. And she will be right. She knew what words I needed, too. As she dried the newly rinsed set of unbreakable wine goblets from Costco, I said, “What if I don’t love an adopted child like I love the girls?” She laid the dishtowel across the glasses that sparkled upside down, and said, “When that child looks up at you and you realize that you’re it for that kid, that the buck stops with you, the love will just be there.”

It’s a practical thing, love. My family appeared shambolic, but love oozed through our many cracks, through our messy attempts to know, to understand, one another. But what happens to a little boy’s thoughts when he has no one who shares them? What happens to a little girl’s memories when they haunt her? Do these memories get caught in the throat? Burn behind the eyes? The unknown-ness of each child in an orphanage—or on the streets or worse—the memories, passions, joys, fears, struggles, and what makes them laugh, all of it must increase a lonely sense of being indistinguishable from the child in the next bed as they are squeezed into shapes by necessity. We are all broken, we just are. But if we are a little lucky, and very willing to learn how, our shards and pieces can form mosaics of love and relationship—unwieldy, vibrant, and cracked as they must be. If we are not so blessed, we need to fit to whatever form is known or available to us. Kids in institutions or making their way on the streets take on outer shells of conformity and necessity. A splay of glow stars sparkled above the girls as they slept. Standing on a ladder with her neck bent back and arms raised, Laura had painstakingly organized the stars by constellation. When she tired of following the chart that came in the box, she scattered the rest of them across the white ceiling. I was happy not to have them ordered just so. I’m not interested in finding these forms in the real sky. A belt? A dog? For me, the stars are questions, not answers. Possibility, not defined figures. The heavens declare the glory of God. The firmament shows God’s handiwork, says the psalmist.

For the sake of our child-to-be, Yosef and I would navigate forms, interviews, regulations, bureaucracy, heartbreak, and hope—swinging from star to star—to the other side, where a child will lovingly be tucked in, sung to, and kissed goodnight, just as every child deserves. And when this child grows up and has children I’ll make sure they sleep in sheets of the softest cotton.

Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press

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Who Got an American Any Longer?

Thursday, March 03, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpt from Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman.

Maya had been early to pick up Max the day he didn’t come home with the school bus. Usually she was still powering up Sylvan Gate Drive when the old yellow bus sputtered to its crown, the doors exhaled, and Max tumbled out, always before the Kroon girl because Max always took the front seat. Even in the family Corolla, it was Alex at the wheel, Max in the passenger seat, and Maya in the back. Maya had gathered that the popular children sat back of the bus. She had asked Max once why he wasn’t among them. “There’s too much noise in the back,” he had said, and she had felt a hidden satisfaction at his indifference.

That day, after a week of disabling warmth premature even for New Jersey in June, a note of unhumid reprieve had snuck into the air—Maya had caught it on her drive home from the hospital and so she had walked out of the town house early. On the rare occasions Alex was home early enough to collect Max, he drove the thousand yards to the head of the drive—Alex enjoyed the very American possibility of this convenience. But Maya walked. She was on her feet all day at the hospital, but she shuttled between three rooms and it was all indoors.

In Kiev, Maya’s mother had always awaited her by the school doors, painted and repainted until they looked like lumpy old women. The walk home was time alone for mother and daughter; by the time they reached their apartment, Maya’s father would already be at the kitchen table slouched over the sports section, the only part of the newspaper where things didn’t have to be perfect. Maya’s mother would begin their walk by asking all the questions a mother was required to ask of a daughter’s school day—even as an eight-year-old, Max’s age, Maya understood this as a formality—but then, after a discreet pause, Galina Shulman would bring her daughter up to date on the indiscreet doings of “the great circus” of their thousand-apartment apartment building.

Maya was exhilarated by these walks for she felt her mother spoke as if Maya was not present, or if she were, then as an equal, a friend, not a daughter to whom convention described responsibilities. So—a silent hello to a woman now five thousand miles away—Maya picked up Max from the school bus. It wasn’t particularly necessary—the danger was not in the distance Max would have to cover down to their town house, but in his time out in the world. But it was Maya’s only time alone with her son. She used it to try to understand why she couldn’t always speak with Max in the same easy, unspooling way her mother had spoken with her. Maya did not have her mother’s imagination; that was part of it, certainly. Nor did she have her mother’s curiosity about her neighbors, though Maya knew that this was a failure of her looking, not their living. But none of that seemed the answer. Maya asked her son about school, questions he answered politely and briefly—she never failed to marvel at the unkinked Russian speech of her not-Russian son—and then both fell silent. All she could think was to take his hand, and he let her hold it. She felt she was failing him in some way. Failing him, and couldn’t say how; she felt thick and graceless.

They had been lucky, the adoption supervisor had kept reminding them, as if he worked on commission. American parents often had to go abroad to find children: Malaysia, Korea, Romania. Bribes, endless waiting, no medical records. Whereas the Rubins got an outright American. Who got an American any longer, and a brand-new baby instead of a child old enough to have been terrorized by somebody else? Maya had the ungrateful thought that she did not want an American: She felt that she would have more to say to a Romanian child. In the sleepless hold of another interminable night, she had shaken awake Alex and said so. He closed his fingertips around the knob of her shoulder, as if she were a loose lightbulb: “He’s a newborn. Was New Jersey familiar to you when you moved here? This house? But now it’s all home.” He turned onto his side, cupped one of her breasts from behind, and said: “Sleep, Maya—please.”

She had picked out the weary magnanimousness in his voice—he had to indulge not only her willingness to adopt, but her anxieties over it. Only who wanted a child more than he did? However, a biological solution being impossible, Alex’s desire had just one condition—that he not be made to confess it. And so she carried on as the secret advocate for them both. His contribution was to disparage the woe conjured up by her railroad mind at two in the morning. “Railroad mind”—that was Alex’s term for the hive of Maya’s brain. Railroads made him think of motion, steam, frantic activity. What he really meant was that she was like some Anna Karenina—superfluously melodramatic. And Maya understood what he really meant only because she had a railroad mind.

Alex had been ten years younger than Maya’s eighteen when his family had come to America; the Rubins had come for good, whereas Maya had come on an exchange program in 1988, the first year such things were possible. After college, Maya was supposed to return to the USSR—a plan altered by her love affair with Alex and the end of the USSR. Alex had taken to America—he spoke with confidence about Wall Street, the structure of Congress, technology. Maya conceded his authority. Only once had she exclaimed that in twenty years he had almost never left New Jersey, so what did he know? Alex had looked at her as if at a child who doesn’t understand what it means to say things one will later regret, and retreated upstairs. He did not speak to her for three days, their sullen meals spent communicating through Max and his grandparents, and Maya never said that again.

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Copyright © 2016 by Boris Fishman. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Moscow, 1953: The Czardom of Black Cats and Black Marias

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Yid: A Novel by Paul Goldberg, published by arrangement with Picador.


In the early morning of March 1, 1953, when Iosif Stalin collapsed at his dacha, he was preparing to solve Russia’s Jewish Question definitively. Military units and enthusiastic civilians stood poised to begin a pogrom, and thousands of cattle cars were brought to the major cities to deport the survivors of the purportedly spontaneous outbursts of murder, rape, and looting. Stalin intended his holocaust to coincide with the biggest purge Russia had seen.

The West would have to choose between standing by and watching these monstrous events or taking the risk of triggering a world war fought with atom and hydrogen bombs. Stalin’s death was announced on March 5, the day his pogrom was scheduled to begin.

Act I

1

At 2:37 a.m. on Tuesday, February 24, 1953, Narsultan Sadykov’s Black Maria enters the courtyard of 1/4 Chkalov Street.

A Black Maria is a distinctive piece of urban transport, chernyy voron, a vehicle that collects its passengers for reasons not necessarily political. The Russian people gave this ominous carriage a diminutive name: voronok, a little raven, a fledgling.

At night, Moscow is the czardom of black cats and Black Marias. The former dart between snowbanks in search of mice and companionship. The latter emerge from the improbably tall, castle-like gates of Lubyanka, to return laden with enemies of the people.

The arrest of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater, is routine. An old, likely decrepit Yid, Levinson lives alone in a communal flat at 1/4 Chkalov Street. Apartment 40. No hand-wringing wife. No hysterical children. No farewells. No one to hand the old man a toothbrush through the bars of a departing Black Maria.

In the parlance of state security, arrests are “operations.” This operation is easier than most: collect some incriminating rubbish, put a seal on the door, help the old man into the truck, and a little before dawn, the Black Maria drives back through Lubyanka’s armored gates.

Lieutenant of State Security Sadykov is slight and pale. His hair is straight and dark red. He is a Tatar, a dweller of the steppes, a descendant of the armies of Genghis Khan, an alumnus of an orphanage in Karaganda. With him are two soldiers, naïve nineteen-year-old boys from the villages of Ukraine, dressed in anemia-green coats, each armed with a sidearm. One of the boys carries a pair of American handcuffs.

Another night, another knock-and-pick. The function of the green, covered light trucks that fan through Moscow at night is clear to everyone. There is no reason to hide their purpose or to flaunt it. It’s best to approach through the courtyard, turn off the engine and the lights, and coast gently to a halt.

The driver, one of the nineteen-year-olds, skillfully pilots the vehicle through the dark, narrow cavern of an archway built for a horse cart. With the engine off, he surrenders to inertia. Bracing for a burst of frost, Sadykov and the boys step out of the Black Maria. A thin coat of crisp, pristine snow crunches loudly underfoot. Sadykov looks up at the darkness of the five-story buildings framing the sky above the courtyard. The night is majestic: dry frigid air, bright stars, the moon hanging over the railroad station, pointing toward mysterious destinations.

Whenever possible, Sadykov avoids going through front doors, favoring tradesmen’s entrances. The back door of 1/4 Chkalov Street is made of heavy oak, devilishly resilient wood that has defied a century of sharp kicks and hard slams. Protected by an uncounted number of coats of dark brown paint, it stands impervious to weather and immune to rot. Opening the door, Sadykov and his entourage plunge into darkness.

Since 1/4 Chkalov Street is close to the Kursk Railroad Station, travelers use the building’s stairwell as a nighttime shelter. As they await morning trains, these vagabonds curl up like stray dogs beneath the staircase, their bodies encircling suitcases and burlap sacks. If it’s your lot to sleep beneath those stairs, you have to be cold or drunk enough to tolerate the overpowering smell of urine.

Ignoring the odor and the sound of a man snoring under the stairs, the three soldiers feel their way to the second floor. Sadykov lights a match. A blue number on a white enameled sign identifies apartment forty.

With the match still lit, Sadykov motions to the boys. When duty takes Sadykov and his comrades to large communal flats, the arresting crew has to wake up someone, anyone, to open the door and, only after gaining entry, knock on the door of the person or persons they’ve come to collect for the journey through Lubyanka’s heavy gates. More often than not, the proverbial “knock on the door” is a light kick of a military boot.

Three men standing in cold, stinking darkness, waiting for someone to hear the kick on the door is not an inspiring sight. They might as well be scraping at the door, like cats, except cats returning after a night of carnage and amour are creatures of passion, while nineteen-year-old boys with sidearms are creatures of indifference, especially at 2:55 a.m. on a February night.

On the tenth kick, or perhaps later, the door opens. Sadykov discerns a frail face, an old woman. Blue eyes set deeply behind high cheekbones stare at the three men. These old crones are a curse, especially for those who arrest people for a living.

Whenever a Black Maria or its crew is in sight, a Moscow crone is certain to start mumbling prayers. Sadykov regards prayers as futile, yet he secretly fears them. He has an easier time with handwringing middle-aged wives; their hysterics affect him no more than a distant cannonade. (As a product of an orphanage, Sadykov has had no exposure to familial hysterics.) For reasons Sadykov cannot fathom, a prayer threatens, even wounds.

“Does Levinson live here?”

Making the sign of the cross, the old woman disappears into darkness of the hallway. The three men walk in. It’s a long hallway of a five-room apartment, with three doors on the right facing Chkalov Street, and two on the left, facing the courtyard.

Sadykov lights another match.

He hears a door creak. It has to be the old woman. She is watching. Her kind always watches. No, righteous she can’t be. She may be the resident snitch, and now she lurks behind the door, pretending to drag God into this purely earthbound affair while in fact savoring the results of her anonymous letter to the authorities.

Sadykov doesn’t know which door is hers, yet hers is the door he wants to avoid.

According to instructions, Levinson’s room overlooks the courtyard. That leaves a choice of two doors.

During operations, neighbors sit behind closed doors, like trapped rodents. And in the morning, they feign surprise and indignation. Just to think of it, Levinson, an enemy! A loner. Always grumbling. Had no use for children. Hated cats. Fought in the partisan bands along the Trans-Siberian Railroad during the Civil War. Would have thought he was one of us, a simple Soviet man, but with Yids nothing is simple. Treachery is their currency of choice. And if he really is a traitor, fuck him, let him be shot!

Have you seen old Yids creaking down the street, going wherever it is they go, carrying mesh bags and, in their pockets, rolled-up newspapers? With the pigmentation of youth wiped off their faces, they still look dark, bird-like, bleached angels ready to fly to God, or the Evil One.

Such is Sadykov’s mental image of Levinson.

Lighting his third match of the night, Sadykov steps up to another door. This time, he doesn’t order the boys to kick.

He knocks three times with the knuckles of his clenched fist. There is movement behind the door, no more than what you’d expect.

“Dos bist du?” asks a raspy voice in a language that isn’t Russian.

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