Tante Esther gives Kalonymous a meal and takes him on a tour of the house. When they get to Emanuel’s study, she shows Kalonymous a library, including books for him in German.
* * *
“I can read this!” he exclaimed.
Language had become a struggle since their arrival in Palestine. They had spoken German and Yiddish in Berlin, but Kalonymous could only read German. He could speak and read French, reluctantly, from their disastrous experience with Yannick, and he could speak a little bit of English and a little bit of Hebrew, but neither of those well. He could manage in one tongue for a short while, and then the words and the languages would start to swim together in his mind. There were times when he couldn’t say anything at all. He hadn’t seen written German since coming to the Rothsteins, and the sight of it was a shock. Memories sparked through his mind like an electric wire gone awry: books, newspapers, street signs, posters. Letters and words burst through his brain like fireworks, without rhythm or order, and when he tried to grasp onto a word it would disappear.
As far back as he could remember, he had always liked to read. He vaguely recalled arguing with his mother, clutching tightly to a worn volume as she tried to pull it out of his hands. He could hear her stormy words as though she had said them yesterday: “This is what happens when a man brings such a book into his home.” He knew she was talking about his father, who had brought home the lavishly illustrated volume of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, the macabre tales of the Brothers Grimm. “Goyische!” She’d stormed out of the room then, and Kalonymous often wondered why she didn’t just throw the book away, until he wandered into the kitchen late one evening and found her at the table, so absorbed in the stories that she didn’t hear him come in.
Motti and Breindl had a few books in their home, not very many, and the ones they did have were worn out, dog-eared and written either in English or Hebrew. There were some sifrei kodesh which Motti used for his talmidim and which he would occasionally sit the boys down with and help them read out loud. Kalonymous loved the Masoret in particular, which gave a whole page to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Motti would teach them the different sounds, and then the Sperlings would head outside and would spend hours looking at the letters, enjoying their shapes and rolling the sounds off of their tongues.
“There are plenty more,” said Esther, pointing to the row of books all labeled Lehmann. “Rabbi Lehmann wrote all sorts of stories. I think you’ll enjoy them,” but Kalonymous was no longer listening. Again he felt an enormous hunger consume him, a desire to both savor each word separately and gobble the entire book up in one bite. He clutched the book to his chest, afraid one of the boisterous Rothstein boys would grab it from him, and sat down on the floor of the office, waiting for Esther to leave so he could turn his full attention to the treasure that had fallen into his hands.
When she didn’t go, Kalonymous looked up, afraid he’d done something wrong. “Come, tzaddik,” she said. “Take as many of the books with you as you like. I know you will take good care of them.”
“Can’t I stay?” he asked.
Esther shook her head. “This is Uncle Emanuel’s private room. Children don’t play here. I only brought you in to show you the books…”
But Kalonymous was already up on his feet and out of the room before she could finish her sentence. His whole body was shaking with fear.
“Kalonymous,” said Esther. “What is it? What’s happened?”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t know! I’m sorry! Don’t send me away!” His eyes had grown to the size of checker pieces, thin rivulets of tears leaking out from the corners.
“You’ve done nothing wrong!” Esther reassured him. His raw terror frightened her, and she wondered how Breindl dealt with it. “I just thought you’d want to see the books.”
Her words were already falling on deaf ears. Kalonymous barreled through the house and out the front door, hitting the ground running, trying to get as far from the Rothsteins’ home as possible. He hadn’t counted on Zayit and Emanuel still out front, settled comfortably on stools near the house, smoking and talking quietly. They heard Esther shouting and Emanuel hurried inside to see what the matter was. Zayit stood in case his presence would be needed, and saw, out of the corner of his eye, the familiar figure dashing out of the house. The road was teeming with people, wagons, animals and even a few motor cars, and in the few moments it took for Zayit to decide whether to stay where he was or go after him, Kalonymous dipped out of sight and was gone.
To be continued . . .