Victory Gardens – Chapter 2

Novel

Manny Rothstein, who a successful printer, supports his wife Esther in a luxurious apartment in Manhattan. Married ten years, they have not yet merited to have children. Papa and Mama Rothstein, Manny’s parents, live a less opulent lifestyle, also in Manhattan.  

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Friday, August 23, 1929

17 Av 5689

The weather had been so hot and humid all that day and the days preceding it that Esther had to keep stopping what she was doing in order to sit down and fan herself. The heat was unbearable. And of all times, Papa and Mama Rothstein insisted they eat the Shabbos meals with them, which meant walking there and back four times.

When Esther hinted to her husband that perhaps his parents’ request could be negotiated he pretended not to understand, and Esther accepted this. For while Manny was always attentive to his wife’s needs, the one thing he would not do was disappoint his parents, even if it meant that Esther was somewhat uncomfortable with the situation. Without acknowledging her hint directly, he had jokingly offered her the option of remaining behind while he made the trek alone, but this seemed even worse. Eating the Shabbos seudah by herself was not an option.

Fortunately, she didn’t have to work overly hard, and she spent most of the day resting. The house was already sparkling. All she had to do was put a white linen cloth on the dining room table and arrange some fresh flowers that Manny had brought home for her in honor of Shabbos.

A little before candlelighting, she saw him fussing over the candles, checking the wicks and making sure that everything was perfect. After she lit, he wished her a good Shabbos. Then, checking their pockets one final time, they set out to the home of Papa and Mama Rothstein.

Mama Rothstein set a beautiful table. While their food was not as elegantly presented as Esther’s, it was tasty and filling. Papa’s voice rang out with such resonance during Kiddush that Esther got the chills from hearing it. The family would joke that when Papa made Kiddush people on the other side of town could answer a hearty amen. Manny’s voice was more like his mother’s, softer, gentler, and not frequently used.

“Mama, the challah is delicious this week,” Papa said.

“Did you do something different?” asked Esther, her way of offering a compliment.

Mama just smiled as they all chewed mightily.

“What’s the news from Mutty?” asked Manny. “Have you heard from him recently?”

“You know how the mail is,” said Papa. “He writes often, but we only receive one letter for every three he sends.”

Esther nodded along with Manny, meanwhile wondering if Papa was only trying to find a silver lining. Last Elul, Papa had taken the momentous step of sending his twenty-year-old son Mordechai off to Eretz Yisrael to learn. Manny had found it difficult to understand his father’s reasoning.

“I learned here in shul, Papa,” he said more than once. “And I turned out all right. Why send Mutty so far away?” Nobody understood fully, but as with everything Papa did, they accepted his actions. Papa never felt a need to explain himself. Mama wore her heart on her sleeve, missing her muzhinke more than words could say.

“I’m surprised you receive any letters at all,” continued Manny. “It’s so primitive there.”

Papa’s face darkened. “Dibas Ha’aretz!” he said sternly, silencing Manny immediately. Papa would not tolerate a bad word said about Eretz Yisrael, and Manny knew this. Esther wondered if her husband, despite his devotion to his parents, occasionally slipped in his respect, due to some subconscious motives.

The conversation limped along until Bircas Hamazon. Papa stood up and, hat in hand, commandeered his older son for a brief shpatzeer. “He’ll come back for you,” said Papa, taking Manny by the elbow and steering him out the door.

The two men strolled quietly down Fifth Avenue, turning their faces to the left and to the right to catch whatever slight breeze there was.

“I wanted to have a word with you,” said Papa.

“What about, Papa?” Manny asked.

“You and Esther will soon be married ten years,” said Papa.

“Yes,” Manny replied. His voice was steady but his heart was drumming in his chest.

“A man needs children,” said Papa. “One boy, one girl, preferably a few of each.” Manny didn’t dream of pointing out that Papa himself didn’t have any daughters.

B’ezras Hashem, we’ll have children,” said Manny firmly, his words stronger than his belief in them. “More than we’ll know what to do with.”

“You’re not getting any younger,” he said. “And neither is Esther.”

“Mm,” said Manny. It was what he said when he had nothing else to say.

The silence stretched between them, until it was cut by the voice of Aharon Birenzweig, stopping them in their tracks.

Gut Shabbes, gut Shabbes,” said Birenzweig. “Rothstein, I’m surprised to find you out tonight. I thought you’d be sitting by your Tehillim.”

“Why is that?” said Papa. “Alles gut with us.”

Birenzweig’s eyes rose. “Don’t you have a boy in Eretz Yisrael?” he asked. “In Hebron?”

Papa nearly burst with pride. “I do.”

“Well it’s a terrible matzav there, I hear. The Arabuchkes are making all kinds of trouble.”

“That’s absurd,” said Papa. “Hebron is one of the safest places there. The Jews and the Arabs get along very well. That’s one of the reasons I let Mutty learn there.”

“Well, it’s what I heard over the radio today, before Shabbes. I only hope the tension has died down already.”

“Yeh, yeh,” said Papa, dismissing Birenzweig’s concerns. “I’m sure it’s just talk, and the merit of the limud Toireh will protect them.”

“From your mouth to G-d’s ears,” said Birenzweig. He tipped his hat to the two men and gave a tiny nod. “Gut Shabbes,” he said, and then he walked on.

Manny was far more alarmed than his father. “What was that all about Papa?” he asked.

“Oh that Birenzweig, he’s such a yente. He brings bad news like a cloud everywhere he goes.”

“Are you sure?” asked Manny, picturing his thin and pale younger brother defenseless in the face of cruel marauders. He shook his head to clear the image from his mind.

“Absolutely,” said Papa. “From my point of view, Mutty is perfectly safe. And now, back to the topic at hand. What do you intend to do about Esther?”

To be continued . . .