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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 8, Part 1

On her deathbed, Basha Puah instructs her daughter to head to the Golden Land

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Illustration by Paul Rogers

But that was sometime after Jocheved had woken from the nightmare that trailed her like the raveled train of some spectral gown into consciousness. Her body ached from what she now understood were injections—the subcutaneous pinpricks and intravenous invasions of the hypodermic syringe—that Zygmunt the Pimp had administered to break her spirit and render her his virtual slave. Over the indefinite weeks of her captivity, almost no part of her anatomy had remained unpenetrated by needles, and her arms, legs, and buttocks bore the angry cipher of those marks. Now the inflammation of her flesh had infected her insomniac mind, which could no longer confine the horror of her waking to a faraway dream; and in her increasing awareness the horror grew until the dream took dominion everywhere, supplanting the mean interior of their basement flat. In the throes of her morphine withdrawal, Jocheved thrashed and flailed, fighting her exhausted mother, who was forced with the aid of the midwife to tie her daughter with leather straps to the sides of her cot. It was during this period that the girl, recalling another instance of being bound, came to realize that the worst she could imagine was true.

The facts revealed themselves by degrees through her mother’s running rant. “Oy, your papa, the yold, the mule,” keened Basha Puah. “I tell him go to the authorities, but he says they don’t care, the police, what uses the Jews put their daughters to. Your daughter’s lost, I tell him, so why’s he got also to lose himself? But he don’t listen, di zikh onton a mayse, the suicide; he sets out all alone for Gehenna, to hell he goes alone to fetch you back.” The tears she refused to release scalding her eyes.

And so the thread of her mother’s piecemeal narrative provided a logic that strung together the fragments of Jocheved’s dream, an awful logic through which she understood that she no longer belonged in the broken bosom of her family. She was a fallen creature, soiled and defiled, and must return to the sty whence she’d been snatched. Her whole body affirmed the urgency, though she was too weak to act on her need, and during the occasions when she attempted to rise from the bed, her mother and Shulamith, the vartsfroy, tightened her bonds. Then it was as if the girl had to be lashed to this world lest she escape to another—though it was paradoxically to another world, a new one, that Basha Puah in the end enjoined her daughter to flee.

For the time being, however, she and Shulamith kept the girl fastened to the cot, force-feeding her broth, herbal decoctions, and purgatives, examining her stools as though they were auguries. They applied leeches to her armpits, heated cups in whose glass globes (or so the midwife maintained) homunculi drawn out of Joheved’s soul had been trapped, until after a couple of weeks the girl began to calm down. When the several levels of wakefulness she was straddling started to resolve into one, Jocheved looked in her infirmity across the cellar to where her mother, beyond weariness herself, had taken to the bed from which her husband’s corpse had only recently been removed. Then there was just the old hag in her florid babushka emptying slop pails and stoking the stove, while Basha Puah cried out in her fever for her daughter to leave this place: “Gay avek! Go already to the Golden Land.” For America was the place her mother had fixed upon as her daughter’s salvation. But as her father’s girl, wasn’t it Jocheved’s duty to follow her papa whither he had gone?

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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 8, Part 1

On her deathbed, Basha Puah instructs her daughter to head to the Golden Land
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