Excerpts from The Rosen Legacy
The Rosen Legacy weaves a complex tapestry that ranges across time and space, chronicling the fate of nine generations of Rosens and the Torah they inherit. Through the lives of its custodians the Torah becomes entangled in astonishing and brutal events shaping the fate of a family, a people, and a nation. At the heart of the novel is an intriguing question: how does a family’s sacred legacy shape the identity of those who inherit it?
The story begins at the turn of the eighteenth century, when Samuel Rosen, the innkeeper of Valinsk, Lithuania, commissions a Torah to fulfill a vision that has grafted itself to his mind so tenaciously that he’s dreamed of it every night. The novel ends two hundred years later when, in an ironic twist of fate, Natalie Rosen, his great-great-great granddaughter, accidentally destroys it. Horrified by what she has wrought, she uses twenty-first century technology to resurrect the Torah in a way that Samuel Rosen could never have imagined – even in his wildest dreams.
The words of the Torah are compared to water, wine, and milk (Isaiah 55:1), because just as these are kept in the simplest of vessels, so the Holy Words are preserved in the humblest of men.
Just before daybreak, Tevya, with the Sepher Torah in its pouch now safely strapped to his back with rope, reached Valinsk, tattered, weary and unheralded. On that last leg of his journey Tevya trudged along the Wilja River, that circled the town of Valinsk. The river, swollen with spring rains and melting snow, roared its welcome. Stands of willow and birch, bursting with nascent buds that covered their swaying branches with palest-green lace, seemed to Tevya like shy maidens beckoning him home. Under a pale blue sky marbled with white clouds, he crossed familiar fields planted with early flax and rye.
But only when he reached the old cemetery on the outskirts of the town did he feel truly at home. Tevya immediately recognized the tombstones made from local black basalt, and whitewashed red brick. The mute stones greeted him like the faces of long-lost friends. Many were carved and engraved with special symbols: menorahs, shofars, hands raised in blessing, lions, ewers and bowls. The handsome tombstone engraved with the Ten Commandments belonged to good Reb Nathan Szulkin. Beile Asner, who had left behind three small children when she died – may her soul rest in peace – lay beneath doves in flight above a nest of chicks.
By the cemetery gates he greeted a group of women – scarves around their heads and woolen shawls draped around their torsos – sitting huddled on the ground. These women made their living as klogerins, hired to fall on the grave weeping and wailing. Nearby stood a man in a kapote, a long black frock coat, intoning the prayer for the dead. Tevya spat three times to avoid the evil eye, and said, "How peacefully you sleep good souls! Still if you don’t mind, I would rather join you not." Then, despite his sore feet he hurried away, afraid to ask for whom they mourned.
Leaving the cemetery behind, he walked through orchards flushed with blossoms and vegetable gardens planted in rows of leafy spinach and early lettuce. Just before entering the town he came upon an encampment of Gypsies.
The Gypsies, dressed in bright, ragged clothing, cooked their breakfast on a campfire burning brightly in the center of an irregular circle formed by covered wagons. As soon as they saw him, they beckoned to him, and shouted out ribald wisecracks to him.
"Looks like Lady Luck shrunk your love stick! Come, I’ll tell your fortune!"
"Don’t pay attention to her! Come to me! I’ll read your cards, or your palms. Maybe there’s a beautiful woman in your future! She’ll swell your love stick! And her belly!"
Tevya tried to hurry on, but a young woman with a sensuous body, came to dance around him, fingers snapping, hips swaying, eyes flashing. Despite the soreness of his feet, Tevya could feel them itching to dance.
"I’ll come back one day, and you can train me to dance like a Gypsy!" Tevya said as he hurried on.
"People who aren’t Gypsies can never learn to dance the way we do!"
Tevya loved their wild dance and music and always looked forward to their performance on market days in Valinsk. Once, lured by the haunting beauty of the music, he hid in the woods near their encampment. The King of the Gypsies played so passionately that Tevya began to burn with a desire so intense he almost fainted. Now Tevya waved temptation away but made a pact with himself to visit their encampment again.
Preoccupied with these forbidden thoughts, Tevya found himself standing at the entrance to the main street of Valinsk. For a moment he felt disoriented, like a shadow of himself, and it occurred to him that he did not know what day it was. The dusty streets were quiet, and the very houses seemed asleep. After his long sojourn in foreign lands, everything seemed familiar, homely and comforting as warm bread, yet at the same time strange and new.
Tevya had developed the habit of talking to himself, and now he mused aloud. "It can’t be Thursday, that’s market day. On market day the place would be like a mad house, people running everywhere."
All at once, in his mind’s eye, he saw farmers riding to market in their wagons brimming with produce; peasants from the nearby villages carrying crates of geese and baskets of fruit and vegetables; and vendors and buyers rushing about. His ears seemed to fill with a cacophony of sounds: clucking chickens, whinnying horses, grunting hogs, mooing cows, bleating goats, all mingling with the clattering of wheels on cobblestones. And rising above the din, calls of vendors, shrill or melodious, luring customers to their stalls. The illusion fired his imagination so intensely that he could smell the powerful mixture of pungent odors that rose from clods of dung, hoops of ripe cheese, cuts of fresh meat, barrels of pickled fish, and mounds of warm yeast bread.
The sudden laughter of two small barefooted boys punctured these reveries. Absorbed in a game of tag, the boys did not notice Tevya standing at the top of the main street. Tevya stood watching them as the morning sun, rising behind him, cast his elongated shadow onto the street. His shadow, joined to his boots, wavered like a ghost trying to rise up from the dust. Suddenly, one boy tripped the other and sent him sprawling at Tevya’s feet. Tevya’s outlandish appearance so startled them that they took off, helter-skelter, almost knocking down a water carrier making laborious progress down the street. Water sloshed from the pails suspended from the carrier’s shoulders by a yoke. With a start Tevya and the water carrier recognized one another, and called out hearty greetings.
As if a curtain had gone up the town awoke. After the momentary hush the shtetl people were buzzing around going about their daily business. There was a barefooted boy selling bagels stacked on a stick, children playing by the well, a peddler with bags of old clothes tossed over his shoulder. Here came Manny the butcher leading a calf to be ritually slaughtered by the town’s shochet. Manny slapped him on the back and cried, "Thank God you’re alive."
"Praise to God!" Tevya said, slapping him on the back too.
"Hey! What’s in the bag?" Manny asked.
Tevya made no reply but winked and plodded on. He passed a row of one-story wooden houses and noted that nothing seemed to have changed in this poorer section, except that it had become a mite shabbier. Everywhere the shtetl’s people waved and shouted their greetings to welcome him home. It felt so good to be among his own people after being a stranger in strange lands that his lips trembled and a film of tears blurred his sight.
There, on the corner sat the rag peddler, Mordekhai. Here, bent over his work, Mendel the tailor and town wheedler. There, carrying a heavy sack, Yaakov the thief. Sunning himself on a bench he spied Moshe the grouch. Leaning out of her window to shake dust from a rug, he saw Zirl the bossy woman.
Yudelah the mischief-maker stared at him in astonishment, and commented, "So! You got something of value in that bag? You have to carry it on your back like a donkey?" Tempted to reply in the affirmative, Tevya reminded himself that Samuel had sworn him to secrecy. He put a finger to the side of his nose and grinned mysteriously but did not reply.
With his nose buried in his prayer book there came Yitzhak the scholar. Ephraim the troublemaker ran up to him and shook him in delight. "Tevya! Tevya! You look like a beggar. Do you want me to carry the bag for you?"
"No! God forbid!" Tevya limped on as fast as his sore feet and worn boots would allow.
Masha the muddle head almost dropped her basket of eggs when she saw him. Sulky Matle sat in her yard plucking goose feathers for stuffing pillows and bed covers. "Thank God you’re alive. But look what you look like! Worse than a pauper I swear. That’s what happens to people who live among heathens."
Crazy Mariyasl stood weeping in her vegetable garden for no apparent reason. When she saw him she stared at him, then with tears still coursing down her cheeks began laughing, twirling around and pointing at him.
As in a daydream – boys and girls, women and men, young and old – the people of his village drifted by Tevya like chimera. All ushered him home with words of welcome, questions or chastisements.
As he neared the marketplace in the center of the town, the shabby wooden houses gave way to more solid whitewashed ones. Most had their backs to the market square and their fronts facing the shtetl gardens and the fields beyond. Many of the houses had stables attached to them. Chickens, geese and ducks scratched in the yards for worms.
Surrounding the marketplace at the center of the town were the houses of wealthier Jews. These were two story houses built of brick with stores on the ground floor: the butcher, the boot maker, the baker, the watchmaker and the tailor. Through open doors he could see flames from the blacksmith’s forge, and there was his son pounding on the anvil. In the center of the market place, Tevya halted to draw water from the well. As he sipped the cool well water with its special taste of home he recalled with disgust how Lithuanian soldiers had once dropped a dead pig into it to taunt the Jews. He remembered how Samuel hastened to the rabbi (with a generous donation of course) to obtain a special dispensation for the people to continue to drink from the contaminated well.
After washing up as best he could, Tevya turned left onto the street leading to the shulhof, the square where the synagogue, schools and community buildings were located. The shulhof was the spiritual and social center of shtetl life.
On the western end of the square were the public baths, and the mikvah, the ritual bathhouse where married women took ritually purifying baths after menstruation. Nearby stood a shelter for the homeless and next to it the shack where fowl were killed by the ritual slaughterer. Next came the cheder, a primary school for the youngest children, then the yeshiva, the school of higher learning. In the center, on higher ground, stood the shul or synagogue.
Tevya could see its pointed red roof rising above the smaller buildings. Unlike the wooden synagogues of the smaller shtetlach, Valinsk’s synagogue, built of massive stone blocks and crowned by a three-tiered, pagoda-like roof, gave the appearance of a fortress. In the late afternoon sun its yellow, green, and red stained-glass windows glowed, also welcoming Tevya.
After the warm spring rains, the usually bare courtyard, now covered in green meadow grass and wild flowers lent a happy splash of color to the place. Schoolboys were just beginning to gather outside in the time between morning prayers and the start of classes. When they caught sight of the bedraggled Tevya with the leather bag strapped to his back like a beast of burden, they called out to him.
"What have you got in the bag? A corpse?"
"Have you been living with the Gypsies?"
"Been sleeping with the pigs?"
"Need to go to the bathhouse?"
To the boys’ chagrin Tevya completely ignored their jeers and proceeded doggedly on towards Samuel Rosen’s house. Inwardly he returned their mockery: What do you stupid schoolboys know! I am a hero now, a man of courage, a man to be respected. Soon you will beg me to tell of my adventures. How you will listen with eyes glowing and mouths agape. How you will revere me for bringing this wonderful Torah from the Holy Land to you.
Samuel, on his way to prayers, saw Tevya come into view at the far end of the street that ran steeply downhill toward the marketplace. As Samuel stood watching, the top of Tevya’s bare head bobbed along, then passed out of sight returning to view a little larger each time. Samuel stood frozen to the spot, trying to assess the situation.
He stood with his right foot planted forward, the left lifted slightly off the ground, his head strained forward. The sunlight streamed over his shoulder and turned his graying beard red-gold. Finally, he recognized Tevya and noted that he carried a leather bag.
At the other end of the street, Tevya recognized Samuel’s massive head and broad shoulders. On seeing his master, he gave a loud whoop. He heard Samuel shouting something in reply, then saw him run forward, arms extended wide.
Samuel could not have been more pleased with the Torah. He immediately set about arranging for a special dedication ceremony. On the following Saturday morning, the entire shtetl joined the joyful street procession accompanying the Torah as if it were a bride. The scholars and wealthy householders, who were soaked with prestige, were given the honor of carrying the Torah along the way. Tevya pushed his way forward so that he could be given the opportunity to carry the Torah, but they ignored him. He managed to hook his eyes to Samuel’s and saw in the sudden droop of his lids and the glaze of his eyes, disinterest even distaste. Mortified and furious at Samuel’s arrogance, Tevya pointed his finger at the Torah – a long and delicate yet work-roughened shaft of a finger – the offensive attempt of a poor man to assert his will over a wealthy one, but Samuel ignored him.
Upon reaching the shul everyone crowded into the pews of the sanctuary. The most prominent and honored members of the congregation – known as the shayne yiden or beautiful people, that had nothing to do with looks and everything to do with quality – took the places reserved for them by the eastern wall nearest to the Holy Ark. Behind them came the householders. The poor and uneducated–known as the proste yiden or the common, ordinary folk – sat in the back. In the upstairs gallery sat the women.
When everyone was seated, the heavy portals to the sanctuary opened with a muffled boom and the congregation turned to see Samuel standing there with his arms wrapped around the Rosen Torah as if he held something as precious and fragile as a newborn babe. Walking behind him, wearing a white robe as on the Days of Awe, came the cantor followed by the rabbi also in a robe of white. As they proceeded down the aisle all eyes were fixed on the tops of the Torah’s posts adorned with ornate silver finials, tiny crowns gleaming with semiprecious stones and tinkling bells gently swaying above Samuel’s shoulder. They feasted on the red mantle of silk embroidered with gold thread, the solid silver breastplate engraved with the lion of Judea, and on the delicate silver yad. Officers of the temple, wearing white yarmulkes and tallises (skull caps and shawls), followed behind the rabbi.
The procession advanced down the aisle, then mounted the four steps to the platform. When they reached the lectern the rabbi and the cantor halted abruptly and turned to face the congregation. The officer immediately behind the rabbi almost bumped into him but caught himself in time. There was some shuffling before they lined up and faced forward. The rabbi signaled the congregation to rise.
"Oh God of our Fathers, we of the Valinsk Congregation accept this sacred scroll – the magnificent legacy of the Rosen family. Each time we read from this Torah, we should remember that we are shutafim, partners with God, through the continual process of creation." He paused and raised a trembling finger above his head as a caution to his listeners, "Yet you must remember that only if you study and observe the 613 divine commandments of the Torah will you be guided to perform mitzvhot (good deeds). Because one does not speak of a beautiful thing but of a beautiful deed." Even the most ignorant understood what their rabbi was telling them: a show of wealth can become nothing more than empty action if it is not translated into good deeds. It now remained to be seen whether Samuel would fulfil his obligation to help others. All eyes now turned towards Samuel who felt at once empowered and yet burdened with many new obligations to the community which he would be expected to fulfil.
"May we be worthy of this sacred Torah." The rabbi’s voice faltered but his gaze was fixed steadily on Samuel as he signaled to him to place the Torah on the reading table.
Looking out at the congregation Samuel said with shining eyes, "This is a momentous occasion. It is the culmination of my deepest wishes. I hope the Torah will bestow blessings on all of us." He might have continued but the rabbi cut him short by unfurling the Torah and reciting the first blessing (Birkhat Ha-Torah) praising God for choosing the Jews from all people and giving them the Torah:
Praise HaShem who is praised.
Praised is HaShem, who is praised forever and ever Praised are You, HaShem, our God, Ruler of the world,
Who chose us from all the nations,
And gave us the Torah,
Praised are You, HaShem, who gives us the Torah.
After that the Sabbath service was conducted by reading the assigned portion of the Torah. Seven members of the Rosen family were called up to read from the Torah as a special honor. At the conclusion of the service a second blessing was read:
Praised are You, HaShem, our God, Ruler of the world,
who gave us theTorah of truth, and implanted within us eternal life.
Praised are You, HaShem, who gives us the Torah.
Then the rabbi held up the open Torah for the congregation to view. A gasp rippled through the sanctuary. It was as if their sacred text had been opened before the eyes of God. Their daily struggle for bread, the ever-present fear of the hostile world was sublimated by the feeling that they were connected to eternity, to God. They did not see the Torah’s beauty as distinct and separate from its content. In their minds its beauty derived from what it stood for – the perpetuation of God’s Word. It was beautiful because of its moral purity. Yet, one young boy was bedazzled by the splendor of the Torah itself. From that moment on the boy desired nothing more than to fashion with his own hands, objects of great beauty. His path was fraught with difficulty but with the vision of the Rosen Torah to guide him, he went on to become a renowned silversmith trained by the finest craftsman of Damascus, Syria, then part of the Ottoman Empire.
The congregation longed to bask in that moment forever, but, too soon, the cantor rolled the halves of the Torah together and girded it with a strip of silk to prevent it from unrolling. Then he placed it in its red cover and handed the scroll to the rabbi. Holding it vertically in his arms, the rabbi turned toward the Ark where the glow from the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light), suspended above, washed a halo of amber over him. Samuel had the honor of opening the Ark doors. As the rabbi placed the Rosen Torah beside the Valinskeh Torah, Samuel began to sob. A hot flood of emotions washed over him. He experienced joy, pride, reverence, awe, satisfaction and power. The congregation, overcome by spiritual exaltation and by the splendor of the Torah, wept too. Everyone felt the upwelling of pious devotion and at the same time struggled against the more base feelings unleashed within them.
The most prominent scholars of the congregation sitting by the eastern wall wept with envy. The smoldering subterranean rivalry between the learned and the wealthy fueled by Samuel’s blatant exhibit of power suddenly flared. They wept also out of vanity that their shul now housed a Torah finer than any other. Behind them, the householders wept out of pride and self-satisfaction that one of their own had so visibly advanced his status. Samuel’s seventeen year-old son Yankel, sitting amongst them was so overcome with esteem for his father and with religious fever that he almost collapsed.
The poor and uneducated sitting far in the back, were filled with the spirit of rebellion. Even in God’s house the learned and wealthy were accorded respect and dignity while they were treated with disdain. Tevya seated in the far back was humiliated that he had not been called up to the bima. After all, he had risked his life to bring the Torah safely back from Jerusalem, but he had received no acknowledgement, his name had not been mentioned even once. Seething with repressed hostility, he said with a sneer to Isaac the candle maker seated next to him, "The rich man carries his brain in his wallet."
Sensing Tevya’s resentment, the candle maker tried to comfort him, "God is an honest repayer–but he is in no hurry."
Not to be outdone Tevya quipped, "God loves the poor but helps the rich." Behind him he heard someone hiss, "May his teeth fall out – except one so he can suffer from toothache, and also let onions grow in his navel." This caused those around him to titter and those seated in the front to turn and glare. Although these witticisms helped to momentarily channel their resentment, they knew that this show of wealth would gain Samuel a measure of respect and prestige they could never dream of.
Seated in the back of the women’s gallery upstairs, Tsiporah pressed her hands between her knees to still their trembling. To console herself, she whispered, "shrouds have no pockets." Then more loudly, "The rich man’s foolishness is more admired than the poor man’s wisdom."
In the front row Rachel gripped the pew to stop herself from jumping for joy. Samuel’s increased status would now pave the way for their son Yankel to become a scholar and for their daughter Lena to become the wife of a scholar. Rachel wept out of sheer gratitude, for Tevya had returned with the Torah to fulfill her dreams and Samuel’s vision so consummately.
As anticipated, the acquisition of this magnificent legacy did indeed advance his status in the community. It smoothed the way for his election to the kahal, the local self-governing body that made decisions affecting the community. Being one of the seven members of the kahal finally soothed the wounds his body and self-respect had sustained. All those years the hurt boy inside Samuel had wanted to shout, "I’ll show you!" and now he had.
Soon after Samuel’s acquisition of the Rosen Torah, Catherine the Great seized what was left of Polish Lithuania, so that Valinsk came under Russian rule. Czarist Russia’s history of anti-Jewish policy gave the people of the shtetl good reason to fear what the future might hold for them.
Indeed, Catherine faced a dilemma – what was to be done with the Jewish population, the largest in the world, now living within Russia’s borders? Like other absolutist monarchs who annexed parts of Poland, Catherine soon realized the Jewish population, with its unique socioeconomic and religious traditions, would not be easily integrated.
To solve this problem, Catherine decreed the Pale of Settlement, a territory within the borders of czarist Russia where the Jews were given authorization to live. The Pale remained in effect from 1791 until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
While this solution may have appeared satisfactory to Catherine and the czars that ruled after her, it didn’t do much to calm the fears of the Jewish population. Since the Pale’s borders were always uncertain, expanding and contracting at the whim of its rulers, Jews lived on the edge of disaster. They never knew when a decree would come down ordering them to leave their homes.
Despite these uncertainties and shifting fortunes, the town of Valinsk managed to thrive, as did other Lithuanian shtetlekh within the Russian Empire. Indeed, Catherine the Great and the warring aristocracy of Europe, lived in a world beyond their imagining, spiritually and materially remote from their daily lives and deep-rooted beliefs. Even pivotal historical events, like the American and French Revolutions, reached them only as distant echoes.
They celebrated the success and milestones in life – births, bar mitzvahs, marriages, and Holy Days and festivals – with traditional music and song, feasting and drinking, and above all with praise to God. Their lives were not devoid of the joy and satisfaction that came from following their proud traditions.
As for Tevya and Tsiporah, things did not turn out the way they had hoped. Instead they suffered a string of heartbreaks and disappointments. Their baby had been stillborn. As a result Samuel fell short of giving Tevya all that he had promised as a dowry. To add insult to injury, the people of the village showed little interest in Tevya’s travels. Nor did they accord him the hero’s status he felt he had earned.
Through the grief, fiddling remained his greatest passion, and Tsiporah his soul mate. When the band of Gypsies returned for the horse fair and encamped just outside the village, their marvelous music lured him, night after night, to join them on his fiddle. Eventually they left the shtetl to live with the Gypsies. So began the legend of the wandering Jew.
From time to time news reached the shtetl that the couple had been seen as faraway as Jerusalem and Paris. Some portrayed him as King of the Gypsies. It was said that Tsiporah danced with such grace and abandon and Tevya played with such extraordinary virtuosity that they were invited to perform before the kings and queens of Europe. Still other tales depicted them as tragic pilgrims testifying for Jesus – even as imposters who extracted money from the gullible with tales of miracles they had witnessed. None of these could be substantiated but this did not prevent them from being told and retold and greatly embellished as each year went by. There is not a shred of doubt however, that Jack Rosen, Samuel’s oldest son inherited the Sepher Torah from his father when he passed away at the venerable age of ninety.
Abe the Would-be Rabbi
A goat has a long beard, but that doesn’t make him a rabbi.
Leo Rosten’s Treasury of Jewish Quotations
Although he would never admit it, living in New York proved to be a daily battle for Abe. The city reduced him to a mere insect trapped inside canyons of concrete, glass, and asphalt. An insect in constant danger of being crushed by evil-eyed funky-smelling strangers, overcome by the terrible din of machinery and traffic or suffocated by the polluted air. Worse yet, he was terrified of being seduced by a woman wearing shamelessly scanty clothing – one of the legions who paraded the streets lasciviously swinging their hips and breasts – whose entire bodies exuded an erotic invitation to him. Although he averted his eyes he felt the ache in his groin, his flesh swelling, and at night his dreams were filled with wild, carnal acts.
He longed for the open spaces, the quiet beauty that had surrounded him on the farm. To make matters worse, he was decidedly uneasy at the Yeshiva. By contrast to the free-spirited and joyous way his mother had practiced religion, the Yeshiva was a dictatorship. Abe tried to suppress his mounting frustration with the students and teachers who prayed and studied without cease and took interest in little else. Worse yet, Abe found them to be harsh and humorless in their judgment of others. Nevertheless, to save face he was determined to complete the first year before making any change. To ease his misery he focused his studies on the History of the Jews, the course he found most fascinating. When his history professor, Nathan Silverstein, invited him to join a group of elderly survivors on a trip to Lithuania, he jumped at the chance. He wanted to see for himself what kind of a place had shaped his ancestors, in particular his great-great grandfather Jacob who seemed to have inflicted so much pain upon his family. He wanted to experience first hand how the culture of the shtetl could bind a man’s religious heritage to him so irrevocably that no matter how fast and far he ran he could never shake loose of it.
Their itinerary, organized around the requests of the group, included visits to twelve Lithuanian villages within a radius of about fifty miles from Vilnius; a hotel in Vilnius was to serve as their headquarters. In Professor Silverstein’s class Abe learned that over the centuries, Swedes, Poles, Russians and Germans had battled for control of Lithuania. The Jews were invited to settle there by Grand Duke Vytautas in 1410. At one time they had grown to about a third of the population of Vilnius, the capital, and lived on the eastern fringes of the Old Town. For a brief period between World War I and II, under Lithuanian rule, Jewish culture had flourished, and Vilnius became one of the most important centers of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. This ‘golden age’ of Jewish life ended with the German occupation of Vilnius, on June 24, 1941. Under the Germans a full-scale massacre of the Jewish population began. Those who survived the initial killings were forced into two ghettos. Once in the ghettos the Jews were rounded up, shot and thrown into mass graves. The few that escaped fled into the forests. With German occupation, from 1941 to 1944, Lithuania’s Jewish population was wiped out, and the country devastated. When the Soviets took control of Lithuania after World War II, mass executions and deportations resulted in further decimation of the population. Abe’s guidebook described Vilnius, with its Baroque Old Town, as the most architecturally beautiful of the Baltic capitals, with an easy-going charm. Now, the Jewish population of Vilna numbers only a few thousand. The city has one surviving synagogue, out of the 96 that once existed. That was extent of his knowledge of Lithuania, and it scarcely prepared him for what he was about to encounter.
Members of the group visited places that would be scorched in their memory. At the request of Irwin Aronoff, the group headed for a farm near the village of Troki where Irwin hoped to find a woman he knew only by the name of Anna. As a little girl Anna had carried scraps of food to Irwin, hiding in a pigsty on her family’s farm. Irwin told them that Anna would now be in her late fifties, and that he felt sure that he would recognize her, even after all these years. The trip, which proved to be a turning point in Abe’s life, began with a bus ride through the countryside. The bus lumbered and wheezed over narrow roads cutting through fields of rye and flax delineated by forests of quivering aspen, tall poplars, and silver birch. Abe could not explain why these passing scenes seemed strangely familiar to him until he recalled the Van Gogh painting The Potato Eaters. The villages looked frozen in time; old and dilapidated wooden houses in need of paint and repair, chickens scratching in dirt yards, women in worn and faded cotton dresses, long aprons and kerchiefs folded around their heads. Like rosy apples left too long in the sun, their skin was prematurely dried and wrinkled. Some waved and smiled as the bus went by, showing missing teeth or teeth capped with gold fillings. Others ignored the bus as it passed by, remaining bent over in the fields, or cast suspicious, sideways glances at them. To Abe, accustomed to the magnificent forests of the Pacific Northwest, and robust, confident Americans, the people appeared faded and subdued by war and deprivation, and the land played out by centuries of cultivation.
Since the route they were taking passed near Valinsk, now called Valinskas, they made a stop there at Abe’s request. Valinsk was even smaller than he had imagined, with modest, brightly painted wooden houses, few paved roads and few shops. To his dismay, the shul was in a state of disrepair, and had been converted into apartments that were no longer in use. There were no stores on the square, no farmers market and no water well. The cobblestones on the square that Abe had seen in photographs had been replaced by a cement surface.
When they arrived at the farm, one of the villagers directed them to four houses where women with the name of Anna were now living. The first Anna, blind and partially deaf, was too old. The second Anna was a girl in her teens. The third Anna, a Ukrainian, had recently settled in the village. Somewhat disheartened, they went on to the last house. They trudged down a muddy side street for about half a mile until they came to a steep-roofed, weathered country house with an attached barn. A boy, playing with a puppy, stopped to gape at the strangers who had suddenly appeared at his gate. Irwin called to the boy in Lithuanian. In response the boy let go of the hapless puppy’s tail, ran helter-skelter up the pathway lined with apple trees, to the front door and called loudly to someone inside. A woman in a blue kerchief appeared in the doorway where she stood wiping her hands on a long apron, and peering at the strangers who had materialized out of nowhere. Irwin stepped forward threw his hands in the air and cried out to Anna.
For a moment she was too startled to respond, then a visible shudder of recognition passed through her like a powerful gust of wind, lifting her shoulders, shaking the kerchief from her head, and forcing a high-pitched cry from her lips. As she ran under the corridor of apple trees, shafts of yellow sunlight alternating with purple shadows flickered over her, and Irwin rushed forward arms held wide. Abe stood in the high grass watching them embrace, laughing and crying at the same time. He knew no Lithuanian, and so could not follow what they were saying, yet the lasting bond between Irwin and Anna in that terrible time, was plain to see.
In bed that night, as Abe reflected on what he had witnessed, he found it difficult to sort out his feelings. He could only imagine the horror and terror that Irwin must have lived through, hiding like a hunted animal from those who would murder him. Irwin had survived for months with the ever-present fear that at any moment he would be found and put to death. Abe knew that such an experience might well have destroyed his sanity, yet Irwin had survived as a rational human being.
The next day they set out for the Rudniki Forest, to find the makeshift grave of Saul Kleinas’ father. Saul, along with his father and brother, had joined one of the Russian partisan units during the war. The Russians had trained them to survive by guerrilla warfare, and also supplied them with weapons and explosives. In the fall of 1943, Saul and his father were sent on a mission to blow up a railroad. As they made their way through the forest a German unit ambushed them. Saul managed to escape, fleeing into the forest as bullets flew around him. He did not know what had befallen his father, and for months clung to the hope that he had been taken prisoner. Later, a Lithuanian farmer, who claimed to have witnessed the ambush, told Saul that the Germans had shot his father and left him to rot in the woods. After they left he had buried him in a shallow grave. Although almost a half a century had passed since that fatal day, Saul’s yearning to put the past to rest had never abated. By sheer, dogged persistence he succeeded in ferreting out the peasant who claimed to have buried his father, and convinced him to try to locate the grave. Abe could tell by the silence in the bus that everyone was dreading what would be found. As he had promised, the peasant led them to where he remembered having buried Saul’s father. By the time they reached the site – a shallow depression marked by a boulder slimy with a half century of lichen-like growth – they were tired and miserable, covered by cold perspiration and itching from bug bites. Saul did not fall to his knees, weeping and wailing, as they had anticipated; instead, he stood rigid, white-faced and silent. So they all stood, like ghosts in the gloom, surrounded by a silence so profound they could hear the blood pulsing through their bodies, and the sound of air rasping in their throats. Then Saul turned on his heel to face them. "This is not where my father lies. It’s not the right place," he declared, his voice catching in his throat.
His wife reached for his hand, "How do you know this Saul?" she asked. But he jerked his hand away and she could get no coherent answer from her husband. Perhaps, Abe thought, the human mind, assailed by overwhelming misery and evil, has to deny a reality too painful to support. Perhaps it was easier for Saul to deceive himself, to cling to the belief that his father had miraculously escaped.
Zelda Levin had waited all these years to find, and to confront the Lithuanians from her shtetl who had murdered her family; for it was not just Germans who turned to killing Jews. As a child she had witnessed her mother and baby brother gunned down in cold blood by Lithuanians, just because they were Jews. The names and faces of these murderers were branded in her brain forever. Zelda had little difficulty in locating her family home where the murders had taken place, but to her dismay she had come too late, the murderers had long since died. So she confronted the sons of those who had put her family to death, but even in the face of witnesses from the village, they vehemently denied everything, especially that they had stolen Jewish property. "Your fathers broke God’s commandment, ‘Thou Shalt not Kill,’ yet you show no remorse or pity. Does your religion not preach that sinners will burn in Hell?" At these words the men crossed themselves and closed their eyes in prayer, but would not meet her gaze. The wound in Zelda’s heart was torn open once more.
Cecil Meyerson had come in search of the Torah his father had concealed in the ceiling of his home before fleeing into the forests to join the resistance. The current occupants of the home refused to give their permission to tear open a panel in the ceiling to search for the Torah. Cecil returned twice, but still the owners refused. In desperation, he got a search warrant from the police chief, and returned only to find there was nothing in the ceiling.
After a meal of boiled potatoes, pickled herring, fresh tomatoes, and coarse brown bread, Abe went up to his room and slid between thin, cold sheets. The room smelled of damp plaster, stale cigarette smoke and cheap perfume. The events of the past few days had disturbed Abe so that he could not sleep. His thoughts went racing round and round, trying to make sense of the evil that he had witnessed. In the name of religion men had slaughtered one another in cold blood. Perhaps religion is just a myth, a creation of our minds, Abe thought. After all, our very understanding of the world was originally based on myths, including Greek myths, myths in the Old Testament, Vedic Hymns, the legends of all cultures. Clearly, children are born with a blank mind a tabula rasa, but from the moment they open their eyes they are inculcated with the knowledge and beliefs of their culture, including its religious beliefs. If this is so, whose God embodies the one and only TRUTH?
His experiences in Lithuania made Abe certain that he was not cut out to be a rabbi. The beliefs that he had committed to, had evaporated leaving him empty of everything except skepticism. He decided to return to California to spend a few weeks with John where he could talk over his tentative plans to become a computer engineer.
Natalie Rosen the Filmmaker
The Torah begins with acts of loving and ends with kindness.
In the years following, Natalie graduated and found work as a freelance moviemaker. She hid her secret like a live coal inside her heart. She graduated and came out as a lesbian by announcing her plans to wed her college sweetheart, Greta. Four years later, she gave birth to a son, Samuel, by artificial insemination.
The week before Samuel’s bar mitzvah, Natalie stood by the window looking out into the dark reliving that night that had been a turning point in her life.
She had hidden in a toilet stall at the Hillel house, where she stayed until she heard the Rabbi turn the key and lock the door behind him. Then she had made her way to the sanctuary by the aqueous, white light of a full moon filtering through the high windows. As if watching a Polaroid picture developing, objects in the sanctuary had emerged, first in broad outline and then in detail. Her mouth was dry and tasted bitter, but she steeled herself to do the deed. She thought no one would ever find out about what she was about to do; the Torah would be returned before its absence could be noticed.
She ran to where Greta was waiting in the car with its engine running, placed the Torah on the back seat and covered it with an old blanket. The moon high in the heavens shone down on them like a malevolent eye. When they reached home, they carefully unrolled the scroll onto a silk prayer shawl spread over the kitchen table.
"Perfect!" Natalie said, standing back to admire her arrangement. The lighting gave off so much heat she could feel her hands perspiring. Before reaching for her digital camcorder, Natalie wiped her hands on her skirt, smearing tiny flakes of parchment, like of diseased skin, onto the fabric.
Noticing the Torah fragments on her skirt, Greta warned, "Maybe we should dim the lights."<
"OK. Douse one of the lights, but bring the other one a little closer."
"I’m worried that . . ."
"Keep your cool!" Natalie said cutting her short. "I told you, I’m on fire, I’ve waited all my life for this! The Rosen scroll has survived for over two hundred years, it’ll survive my VHS digital filming." She had pressed the record button, then in simulation of eyes reading a page of Hebrew, slowly began scanning the scroll from right to left starting at the bottom. For the next four hours Greta unrolled the scroll, section by section, and Natalie filmed it.
When the last section had been filmed, Natalie said, "I want the last sequence to be a close up of my hands rolling the scroll back onto the posts and then putting it into the cover. Ready?" Natalie began rolling the scroll onto its posts, but as she did so, her shadow, dark and distorted, fell over the scroll, so that Greta had to bring the lights closer. Under their intense glare the heated motes of parchment caught fire, rose into the air, then flitted down onto the silk shawl like a swarm of fireflies, turning it into a funeral pyre.
From that moment on, Natalie had writhed on the horns of a dilemma. She could never return the Torah. Questions pelted round and round in her head like sharp-edged stones. Should she confess to what she had done and take the consequences? Should she let the secret of the Torah stay with her forever? Should she wait until the right time came to declare the truth?
It broke her heart to have destroyed the family legacy. She understood now that the Torah was not an inheritance but a heritage. For while an inheritance may be spent by an heir in any way he pleases, a heritage like the Torah must remain in the family to be preserved and transmitted from age to age and generation to generation so that it is never forgotten. Nevertheless, driven by fear, guilt and shame she held back her confession; but the longer she kept her secret the harder it became to admit her guilt. In time she rationalized away the gravity of what she had done by convincing herself that although the Torah was gone forever, its facsimile remained. She had simply transformed the Torah from ink and paper to digital images with the brilliance of modern technology. Samuel had wished for his Torah to be preserved forever, and now, in a way he could never have imagined, she had done that.
She had sworn Greta to secrecy telling her, "When the time is right, I’ll tell all."
"You’re playing a dangerous game, Natalie." Greta warned her, but as an accomplice to the crime she was just as guilty, besides she was already deeply in love with Natalie. And instead of being covered in glory, Natalie was humiliated by the "F" she got for not turning in the video.
Natalie shook herself free of these bittersweet remembrances of her past, and looked around the screening room she had reserved in a downtown hotel, to make sure everything was in place. Then turned and pushed a button on the remote control. Images of the Rosens and their Torah flowed into view. She had worked on this movie for twelve years; it had obsessed her every waking moment and consumed her dreams. When she first conceived of the video as a freshman, she had been full of conceit, manipulative and egotistical, lured by dreams of fame and glory. But what she learned along the way had humbled her.
The nine heirs to the Torah had approached it with awe and reverence, with abiding faith, with filial piety, humility and respect. They had also come to the Torah with baser motives: self-glorification, overweening pride, and burning ambition, puzzlement and cynicism, uncertainty and despair, as zealots and apostates. Yet, all understood the Torah to be a solemn trust. Being heirs to the Torah had changed them. The Torah served as a touchstone, reminding them who they were and where they had come from, and charging them to do mitzvot, good deeds, in this world so that evil would never triumph over virtue. As inheritors they were irrevocably linked to their ancestors, bearers of their history and witnesses to the tragic fate of their people and to their survival against all odds. Lest others forget the past, they became witnesses to it, bearers of the standard for future generations.
Making the film kept Natalie going and gave her heart. For her there was a kind of alchemy, a catharsis in the process: in shooting footage, composing the sequence, selecting the music, making the whole come together to create a world so real that the viewer is carried into it. She had spent years of her life researching the past, trying to unlock its secrets. She had interviewed people whose roots were in Lithuanian shtetls, and they had gladly shared their stories, family photographs, letters, and memorabilia.
When she toured the "Tower of Life," at the United Sates Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., people of the villages greeted her from walls lined with a thousand photographs. Natalie loved how they had looked in life, at their weddings, and birthday parties, on their picnics, at Sabbath dinners, engrossed in their work. A girl with a sweet-smile, a boy with a jaunty air, an old woman with a shawl, a proper looking gentleman in a bowler hat; from the twist of their mouths, the tilt of their heads, the glow in their eyes she could read how they had been in life. Many of them had been murdered in cold blood, and now she would carry their ghosts with her forever.
In search of answers she visited Lithuania even though Abe cautioned her that the Jews and their shtetlekh no longer existed, that the golden age of their culture and religion had been shattered, and she would find little to interest her there. Still, convinced that if she walked the same roads and breathed the same air, she might come closer to understanding their experience, she made the journey.
Natalie hired a guide to show her the sights. Her guide, Gitanas Mesowitz, a big man with a white goatee and bags under his pale blue eyes, was soft-spoken and knowledgeable. There were few tourists around because modern day Lithuania, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is a country struggling to establish a capitalistic economy. Nevertheless, digital camera in hand, she determinedly recorded everything she saw. On the first day she insisted that Gitanas hire a car to take her to Valinskas, her ancestral Valinsk, about fifty miles from Vilna. When a run down car pulled up in front of the hotel Natalie voiced her doubts about the reliability of the vehicle, but Gitanas reassured her that he had brought along a good supply of motor oil.
Natalie found Valinskas much as her father had described it. Abe had not visited the old Jewish cemetery, and at her insistence Gitanas agreed to take her there. It was a desolate place. Snow, mud and weeds covered the neglected tombstones, many of which had toppled over. Natalie went down on hands and knees and reverently traced the worn letters with the tips of her fingers. It took her a while to scrape the mud off one of the stones with a stick and wash it with snow so that the Hebrew inscription could be seen clearly enough to record for posterity. When she was done recording, she stood there shivering and saying a silent prayer for the souls resting there. It was a crisp October day, the sky was a rare dark blue, and Natalie was filled with awe that she should be standing in this place. When Gitanas touched her on the shoulder and poured her some hot tea from a thermos, to her dismay, she burst into tears.
The next day she toured Vilna’s old churches, the opera house, government buildings and monuments to Vytautis the Great. More absorbing to her were the museums. One honored the Righteous Gentiles, the Lithuanians that helped Jews in their dire distress. A second exhibited relics of Vilna’s old shuls saved from brutal destruction at the hands of the Nazis: parts of Sepher Torahs, mantles, pointers, the doors of a shul, a holy ark and a wonderful tapestry of Queen Esther. The third museum, a Holocaust Museum, was a harrowing experience for Natalie. When she walked the cramped and narrow streets of the ghetto, seeing the remains of the yeshivot and the ghetto shul with a Magen David on the old bricks, she leaned against the wall and wept silently and without restraint. She visited the New Shul built originally in 1904, which had been destroyed and was being restored, but so few Jews remained in Vilna, they barely could find the ten men required to conduct services. Before the war, there were 240,000 Jews in Lithuania, and 220,000 were murdered.
As Abe had foreseen, the experience left her feeling depressed and yielded few new insights. Before leaving she did however, go to the nearby town of Pakruojis, where records where kept, and was elated to obtain copies of birth, marriage and death certificates of the Rosen family.
But until she gave birth to her son, how to transform despair and sorrow into hope eluded her. To hold him in her arms and look into his face was one sure confirmation that life did triumph over death. At last she had found not the answer, but a renewed sense of hope, and she had reworked the film to reflect that.
Her son Samuel was the one most in need of hope. Being raised by two women who lavished their love on him had more than sufficed to counteract any problems they encountered. Natalie had an uncanny ability to deny or ignore insults, but when forced to confront them she could completely intimidate the perpetrators with her sharp tongue and the very real threat of law suits. Now, to her dismay these tried and true strategies were failing. On the threshhold of puberty, Samuel had become extremely sensitive to the taunts of teenage boys who snickered behind his back, slammed locker doors on his hands, or openly branded him a pervert because of his lesbian mother. Under their scathing derision he had become moody and rebellious, lashing out at Natalie and Greta to hide his shame. These attacks on her son so outraged her that at night she had to bury her face in the pillows to muffle her screams. She was determined to fight back, and in every way possible bolster her son’s confidence so that he could stand tall against these bullies.
This night would be different from all the other nights. She was ready to show the film to her son and to the world, but the Rosen family gathered together for his bar mitzvah would see it first because, above all else, she needed their forgiveness. That she had an extraordinary gift to give them would certainly help her cause. After years of searching the World Wide Web, Natalie had found the Rosen Torah posts on auction at e-Bay. When digital photos of the posts appeared on the monitor she had to put her head between her knees to keep from fainting. Without hesitation she had bid for the posts, and got them for a fraction of what they were worth. When the posts were delivered, the glow of satisfaction she felt lightened the burden of shame she was carrying around. Her heart soared to think of the joy it would bring to Abe and the family.
She understood that because of what she had done, her son would never touch the Torah, never read from it. She would show her film as a testimony to her need to make amends and let the Rosen Torah tell its story about hope and love, about family, about identity, about the triumph of life over death. To sustain her courage she repeated the traditional blessing said at Samuel’s Bris: "May you live to introduce your son to Torah, to marriage, and to good deeds."
On this night if they condemned her for having destroyed the Torah now and forever more, so be it. What she had created came from her heart and needed to be shared. She wanted her son to understand who he was and how he could make the world a better place. This time, perhaps, she would get it right.