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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 8, Part 4

The handmaiden gives Jocheved a (pretty radical) makeover

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Illustration by Paul Rogers

Without a word—had they ever exchanged a word?—the hag took in the situation. Jocheved looked on sniffling, hugging her bare breasts as if she meant to stifle them for good and all, while the old woman went straight to the clothes press and in a gesture that had about it something of the miraculous (she was regarded by many as a kishefmakherin, a sorceress) lifted the lid. From its camphor-reeking confines she withdrew a man’s suit of clothes—the dark navy worsted with an alpaca lining and rolling lapel that Jocheved had purchased for her father during better days. Salo, who slept in his peasant smock and sheepskin, had never found occasion to wear it; though he took pride in possessing the suit and pledged to put it on when Mashiach finally arrived, or on the day the rabbi disenthralled himself from the ice, whichever came first. His wife sneered that he was waiting to be buried in his gladrags and, seized with a sentimental urge that he realize that end, had quarreled with the burial society, which pronounced such off-the-rack apparel a desecration.

Passive after the energy she’d expended in cutting her hair, Jocheved looked on with detached curiosity as Shulamith laid out the garments on the sagging featherbed. Nor did she resist as the midwife helped her into first the warm woolen gatkes, then the short-bosomed white dress shirt with its upstanding collar. Next came the hair-line trousers with their double-sewn buttons at the crotch and the single-breasted, round-cut sack coat. There was also a pair of leather bluchers, several sizes too large, whose interiors the old woman padded with newspaper whose headlines described the stewpot of Europe building toward a boil. Still relatively benumbed, Jocheved supposed it was fitting that the vartsfroy who had supervised the girlchild’s delivery should also attend at her rebirth as a pallid young man. Though the clothes hung somewhat baggily on her slender frame, the girl had the odd sensation that she would grow into them. An alien in her own skin, she experienced a composure she hadn’t known since before her abduction; it was a feeling that, while it had little in common with a homecoming, gave her the sense of having been liberated from her outworn self.

Shulamith, notwithstanding her smoky eye and hirsute upper lip, had once had a husband, and with gnarled fingers she meticulously knotted the ash gray cravat at Jocheved’s throat. Then she took up the shears and trimmed the uneven edges of the hair the girl had so recklessly hacked off. Afterward they stood gazing at each other with the sodality of coconspirators who together have defied the law; for even unread women knew the Torah’s prohibition against wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, how it deceives not only others but oneself, confounding the soul that finds itself trapped in a stranger’s body.

“Azoy,” said the midwife in a voice whose girlish lilt was chilling for its incongruity, “now you are again brand new?” From the pocket of her calico apron she fetched the couple of gulden she’d received for pawning Basha Puah’s embroidered challah cloth and porcelain cuspidor, plus the curio of a cedar ice cream freezer. In return the girl bestowed a kiss on the kishefmakherin’s wrinkled brow, who (for an instant in Jocheved’s vapory imagination) was a maid again.

After the old woman’s departure Jocheved dropped onto her cot to take account of her circumstances. She was clearheaded enough to realize that the pittance Shulamith had given her would not begin to defray the expense of her project. It was barely enough to bribe a customs official, never mind purchase a passport or shifscarte ticket. And even had she had the funds for the journey overland from Lodz to the port of Hamburg, then on across the North Atlantic, how would she manage to drag along with her a box containing a saint-size block of ice?

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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 8, Part 4

The handmaiden gives Jocheved a (pretty radical) makeover
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