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by Fred M.B. Amram
Suzette skipped up the three steps to the porch and then into the house, stopping to place a quick kiss on her father’s cheek. She had fetched the boys as instructed. The two apprentices approached Herr Rosenthal’s porch slowly, cautiously.
“What do you suppose he wants?” whispered Moritz. The thirteen-year-old looked to his fifteen-year-old friend as a model and guide.
“Perhaps he just wants to teach us more about cows or horses,” mumbled Kappel.
Herr Rosenthal sat on a cushioned rattan chair next to a rattan table drinking tea and writing in a ledger. Kappel stopped at ground level, keeping his eyes on the boss. Moritz stood a half step back, twisting his neck to see if anyone was behind them. The master looked up from his work and waved them up. Moritz placed one foot on the first step. Kappel kept both feet firmly on the grass.
“So, come up already. What’s keeping you?”
Surely, no Jew had ever before graced this Christian porch. Moritz moved up to the second step. Kappel joined him. “Come, sit,” Herr Rosenthal said waving at a row of rattan armchairs.
“Is this a trick?” Moritz whispered to his older friend. Kappel, lips tight, face pale, didn’t move.
Suzette can prance onto a Christian porch—especially her father’s. But two Jewish boys? Apprentices? Never! German Jews knew their place. Even in these modern times, 1872, Jews did not sit with Christians. Last year, the rabbi who served the Edel community gave a sermon about the recent German unification, predicting that Lower Saxony would see great changes. In the Edel Jewish community the word “change” usually meant a new hardship. Then, a few weeks after the unification sermon, the rabbi wondered aloud about the new Chancellor Bismarck’s anti-Catholic campaign.
“It seems the Chancellor doesn’t like the pope in Rome,” he said. In Edel, very few Jews knew about popes. Very few Edel residents had ever been more than a few miles from the town’s border except through books. However, everyone in the rabbi’s flock had learned how the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and burned Jerusalem.
The boys turned to stone, fear preventing them from moving. Would a rich Catholic rancher really want Jews on his porch?
While Kappel kept a sharp eye on the master, Moritz watched Suzette spying on them from behind a curtain. She often stared at the boys, asking about their prayer shawls and the fringes that peeked from under their vests. She asked about their side curls, the payos, that orthodox Jews grow near their ears. Once she playfully pulled Moritz’s left curl. Moritz blushed. He liked Suzette. But now, today, standing on the first step to the porch, Moritz nervously twirled that same left curl with his left hand.
The master stood up, frowning at the boys. “Here, sit. What’s keeping you?”
The impatience in Herr Rosenthal’s voice motivated the boys to shuffle up the steps. Each stood next to a chair. Kappel caught himself rubbing his ear nervously. He returned his hand to his side. Moritz, who usually stood straight as an arrow, hoping to make himself as tall as Kappel, kept his head low. His shoulders drooped. He wished he had a shell like the turtles at the pond near the far end of the ranch.
Herr Rosenthal, as if in a daydream, stood looking over the rolling hills that made up his cattle farm. Acres and acres of healthy grasses led up to the foothills of the Harz Mountains. In the distance he saw the spruce and beech trees. He listened to the cows expressing satisfaction with the fresh air, the warm sunshine and the tasty grass. A few horses in the distance shared the lazy day.
Suddenly he remembered the boys. “For God’s sake, sit.” And the master sat.
Moritz watched Kappel select a chair. He then moved another chair so that he could sit right next to Kappel. Both boys sat straight, stiff, muscles tense and ready for action, feet flat on the gray wooden floor.
Herr Rosenthal questioned his apprentices about the animals. The boys reported what they had learned. “Why does a steer make the best meat for the dinner table?” he began.
Moritz confidently discussed the marbling and how some fat is needed for the best steak. Moritz had learned a great deal about raising cattle from Herr Rosenthal. However, he had learned just as much growing up as the oldest son of the Jewish community’s butcher and shochet, the ritual slaughterer. Moritz might have become a butcher himself, were it not that he loved live animals and sometimes fainted at the sight of blood. He had even given names to almost every cow and horse on the ranch and could describe details about each beast’s special needs. He giggled a little as he described how one bull, Fritz, liked to snuggle up to the cows. The master nodded often as Moritz answered questions.
While Moritz talked, Kappel silently recited the answers in his head. His turn to be tested would come. Herr Rosenthal asked Kappel what he had learned about planning for winter. Kappel described the calculations he had just made to advise how much hay they would need for the time when the animals had less grazing opportunity. He had added in maize, immature oats, and a variety of other grains to assure balanced nutrition.
As the three chatted, the boys relaxed a bit, slipping back into their chairs but still keeping both feet flat on the floor. The master poured more tea into his cup.
When Herr Rosenthal leaned forward, the boys stiffened again, “For fifteen months you’ve learned about breeding the animals and caring for them. Now you’re ready to learn about marketing. In the next few weeks you’re going to accompany me on several trips where we’ll sell cows and horses. You’ll watch me. I will tell people that you are my apprentices, which, of course, is true. However, we won’t tell them that you are Yids.” That word again. “Yid” felt so insulting that Kappel wanted to escape.
“I want you to dress like Christian workers,” Herr Rosenthal continued. “Tomorrow we’ll go to town to buy some clothes for you. We’ll also visit the barber to give you each a normal Christian haircut. Well, what do you say?”
Here they sat on this rich goy’s porch being offered the chance to learn how to become tradesmen. They would even see places they had only heard stories about: neighboring farms and villages—perhaps they would even visit big cities.
Moritz’s eyes widened. “Hei,” he almost shouted. “Wow!”
The older Kappel, less impulsive than his younger friend, placed his hand on Moritz’s knee. He saw a flaw in the plan but didn’t know how directly he could disagree with the master. Haltingly and barely audible, Kappel began, “On the one hand, I really and truly want to become a cattle dealer. And I want to go with you to see the world outside of Edel and this ranch. This is a great opportunity. On the other hand, if we cut our payos and remove our tallis katan, the prayer shawl we wear under our clothing, our parents will be ostracized. The rabbi will condemn us. We can never go home without our payos and tallisim.”
Herr Rosenthal wanted a decision at once. Moritz replayed Kappel’s speech in his head. “What would Papa say? My father is a leader in the Jewish community whose reputation as a shochet and kosher butcher depends on Jewish ritual. I would ruin his reputation. But I really want to see the world.”
Tears filled Moritz’s eyes as he choked out, “I cannot do it. Perhaps Kappel alone can go with you.”
Still speaking slowly and quietly, Kappel asked, “Can we have time to ask the rabbi and our parents?”
“No.” Herr Rosenthal gave no reason. He didn’t have to; he was, after all, the master.
Kappel’s father, a traveling horse peddler, had taught Kappel about bargaining. After testing a few possibilities and still receiving a firm, “No,” Kappel leaned forward just like Herr Rosenthal did when he meant business.
“Tomorrow we’ll go to Edel. If the rabbi figures out a way in which we can look Christian, we’ll already be in town prepared to buy clothes and cut hair. If the rabbi forbids it, well, then we can ride back to the ranch to do our chores or you can fail us in our apprenticeship and send us home.”
The deal was struck.
That night, before going to bed, the boys sat under a spruce to review the dramatic news of the day and to plan. They had a ritual of each pulling a sharp spruce needle and using it as a toothpick. The taste was refreshing.
“It probably can’t be done,” sighed Kappel. He was tall and muscular like his father and, while in school, he often drew praise for his ability to learn and for his maturity. And he was certainly the more conservative of the two boys.
Moritz, on the other hand, was small for his age, short and thin like generations of Marmas before him. In school, he was often reprimanded for misbehaving. Years after the event, people were still talking about the day Moritz put a raw egg on the rabbi’s chair. After the rabbi donned clean pants, he had a long talk with Herr Marma about his troublesome son. Indeed, it was that event that led the rabbi to suggest that Moritz find a career outside of the school house. The apprenticeship was an excellent fit.
“Maybe it can’t be done but we have to try,” answered Moritz.
Kappel was not hopeful. “The rabbi won’t approve and, although my father might approve, your father, the kosher butcher, certainly won’t. And your mother will be outraged. Her firstborn son without payos!”
“My mother will agree to whatever my father says and my father will agree to whatever the rabbi says. It’s all up to the rabbi. He can solve any problem.”
The boys sat quietly for a moment.
“What if the rabbi tells us that we must wear our tallisim? What if the rabbi won’t even see Herr Rosenthal? What if Herr Rosenthal calls the rabbi a Yid? I think we should expect the worst.”
Moritz, thinking aloud said, “You told Herr Rosenthal that you wanted to see the world outside of Edel. I, too, want to see the whole world. Even Poland and Holland and other countries I haven’t learned about. The rabbi is wise because he comes from Poland and has been to Berlin and to many other big cities. If we can’t travel with Her Rosenthal, I may even run away. Maybe I’ll join the army.”
“If you joined the army,” countered Kappel, “I’d be very proud of you. However, you’d break your mother’s heart.”
The boys went into the workers’ bunkhouse. As they crawled under the covers, Moritz whispered, “Do you think that Suzette likes me?”
At sunrise the next morning, Herr Rosenthal and his two Jewish apprentices sat in a wagon making haste for Edel. Songbirds greeted them at every curve in the road. Moritz sat in the middle of the bench, driving the team of two horses. Kappel sat on his left and the master on his right. They chatted amiably about the weather and the health of the trees. A few sickly trees had already started to show yellow and red leaves. Open fields gifted them with the sweet smell of fresh-cut hay.
Herr Rosenthal asked, “Why do each of you have a sturdy stick in your lap?”
Moritz explained, “Sometimes boys and young men jump out from the bushes and attack Jews. They swing sticks and throw stones. Any public road can be dangerous for us. Just last week several ruffians threw stones at us on this very road as we went home for our Sabbath visit. Fortunately we were on horseback and we were able to gallop away quickly.”
Kappel added, “Sometimes even the constables rough up Jewish peddlers on these roads.”
“Yes, yes. I’ve heard of such attacks,” allowed the master. “But I paid no attention. I’ve heard that thieves will rob anyone.”
After a few moments of silence, Herr Rosenthal asked, “Might ruffians attack today?”
“Probably not because we’re with a Christian,” suggested Moritz.
“Although,” added Kappel, “no Christian has ever been seen riding on this road with a Jew. Who knows? As a precaution, we have an extra stick for you under the blanket.”
In town, they stopped for Herr Marma. “We’re going to see the rabbi,” Moritz explained to his puzzled father. The butcher removed his bloody apron, washed his hands and joined them in the wagon. They found Frau Heilbrun, Kappel’s mother, washing clothes in a large kettle. She dried her hands and let her son help her into the wagon. She explained that Herr Heilbrun was away selling horses. Neither Herr Marma nor Frau Heilbrun knew what the excitement was about. They made small talk as they tried to guess why they were all visiting the rabbi. Each in his own mind knew that if a rich goy drives his wagon into the Jewish community and stops at Jewish homes, something important was about to happen.
They stopped at the synagogue where the rabbi was teaching a class of teenaged boys. The rabbi gave his students an assignment and joined his visitors. This leader of the Jewish community of Edel, a rather tall man among traditionally short Jews, greeted the members of his community and then reached out and took the hand of the Christian. “My name is Rabbi Rosenzweig.”
The boys were amazed. They had not known that the rabbi had a name. He was simply “the rabbi.” And, within their experience, no Jew had ever touched the hand of a goy.
The rabbi invited everyone into his parlor.
“Unbelievable!” thought Moritz. “Yesterday Kappel and I were allowed to sit on the porch of a Christian home and today a very rich and important Christian is invited to sit in the parlor of a Jewish leader. These are strange times. Did the new Chancellor Bismarck arrange this?”
The rabbi asked his wife to bring tea. While everyone waited, the rabbi lectured his audience. He needed little provocation to create a sermon. The rabbi began by noting that Herr Rosenthal’s name was similar to his own. “However, ‘Rosenthal’ refers to a valley of roses. My name, ‘Rosenzweig,’ means a rose branch. Clearly a whole valley of roses is more beautiful than one branch—and more important. The beauty, the wisdom and the significance of our guest is to be honored.”
Herr Rosenthal blushed and did not find words to respond.
Frau Rosenzweig served tea in her finest china cups. Rabbi Rosenzweig waited until his wife removed her apron and settled into a chair. Then he sipped, smacked his lips, and gave a satisfied sigh. Everyone sipped. Frau Heilbrun complimented Frau Rosenzweig on her lovely china. Michel Marma, who had visited in the rabbi’s parlor on many occasions and whom the rabbi addressed by his first name, added, “As always, the tea is the best tasting in the city.”
The rabbi, understanding that this was more than a social call, nodded to Herr Rosenthal who took the gesture as his cue to speak. He praised the boys for their hard work and their ability to learn quickly. He was not at all sorry that he had agreed to take them on as apprentices. With another embarrassed blush and looking at his hands rather than at his host, Herr Rosenthal made his proposal to take the boys on a sales trip if they looked Christian. Kappel explained about the tallisim and the payos.
The rabbi leaned back into his large upholstered chair, a chair that dominated the room. A massive oak frame sheltered needlepointed red roses with small green leaves on a solid tan background. He closed his eyes and sat silently for several minutes. His face looked perfectly relaxed. Herr Rosenthal might have guessed that the rabbi was napping but his congregants knew that their leader was formulating another sermon.
“Where is it written to grow payos?” began the rabbi without opening his eyes.
Moritz and Kappel understood that in Jewish circles, communication with questions is common. They had often heard one of their fathers ask the other, “So, how are you?”
The other father would answer, “So, how should I be?”
“Where is it written to grow payos?” asked the rabbi as he opened his eyes and leaned forward, making a second start at his thinking-aloud sermon.
He did not wait for an answer. “In the Torah it is written that you shall not cut the corners of your beard. These boys do not yet have beards. Wearing payos is a custom, an important one to be sure. Nevertheless, payos are not always a necessity.”
No one interrupted the rabbi’s pause as he formulated the next part of his sermon. He started to rock as he continued, “In Numbers it is written that you shall speak to the children of Israel and bid them to affix fringes, tzitzis, to the corners of their garments ... that they may look upon them and remember all the commandments of the Lord. Nowhere does it say how often one must look upon the tzitzis. These boys must each wear a tallis katan, a small prayer shawl. However, they can hide it when their guide suggests and then they can look upon their tallisim when it is appropriate—as often as possible.”
When the rabbi closed his eyes again, everyone knew that he would say more. After all, there is the Torah and there is the Talmud, the word and the commentary. There is always more to be said.
The rabbi suddenly stood up and touched the faces of the boys. “So cut your payos. Maybe the barber can leave a little curl on each side as a reminder. Buy pants that will hide the tallis when necessary—but only when necessary. Zayn gezunt, be well.” That ended the conversation.
As everyone stood up. Rabbi Rosenzweig, the rabbi who now had a name, reached out to grasp Herr Rosenthal’s hand once again. Herr Rosenthal responded with a firm handshake. The two men had bonded. No one had used the derogatory words “Yid” or “Goy.”
While the two men’s hands were still clasped the rabbi said, “Where is it written that a Jew and a Christian cannot both be good men?”
With that, he walked back to his school room leaving everyone in stunned silence. Herr Marma kissed his son. Frau Heilbrun kissed her son. The parents quietly walked to their homes. The boys jumped into the wagon and the trio was off to the Christian barber who did not leave a small curl on each side.
But then, as the rabbi already knew, hair grows.