Manischewitz : the Matzo Family / by Laura Manischewitz Alpern / extract

Book   Author

One Sabbath morning Nesha felt a sort of electricity in the air. It began at home as she dressed, and it pursued her down the street and into the synagogue, where she found her girlfriends clustered together upstairs in the women’s section of the synagogue.

Nesha and her unmarried friends always attended Sabbath prayer services at the big synagogue rather than the small neighborhood synagogue. Upstairs in the women’s balcony, they could sit and gossip freely. Attendance at the Sabbath morning prayer service was not required for married women with family responsibilities.

As soon as Nesha arrived, Feigel grasped her arm and whispered to her excitedly.

“Your father has found a bridegroom for you, I can tell.”

“How can you tell?” Nesha whispered back. Two or three other girls leaned closer to listen.

“I saw your papa talking before the service with my uncle and with Rabbi Salanter, and the three of them never usually talk together, and I heard my uncle tell my papa there is a new young man from Salant here.”

Nesha’s face flushed. “Well, we will soon know if you are right, won’t we?” she said in a voice that shook just a little.

“Won’t we now!” Feigel herself looked as excited as Nesha, for she was a true friend. One or two of the other young women looked frankly envious.

They peered down at the busy scene below. On the main floor of the synagogue, men were shuffling around, some gesticulating as if in conversation, others already wrapped in their shawls, deep in prayer. Boys of all sizes fidgeted or imitated their fathers, swaying in prayer.

Nesha easily spotted the silvery haired figure of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter in the crowd below her.

The distinguished rabbi was an old man of nearly seventy, an amazing person, much admired by her father and the other men of the congregation, still remembered in history as the founder of the Musar movement. He was a brilliant scholar and had been in Memel ever since she was a small child. Rabbi Salanter did not lead a congregation. He had never wanted to do this, even though he could easily have become the rabbi of another town. The men in Memel studied with him whenever they had the opportunity.

Nesha used to think the men only spoke of holy subjects with the rabbi. Was it possible that today they had actually been talking about her, Nesha?

She had to wait for the day to pass. After lunch, her father would spend long hours at the house of study with the other men. After that he would return to the synagogue, and remain there until darkness announced the end of the Sabbath.

Finally it was evening. Nesha’s father returned home, where his daughter awaited him. He carefully removed his coat and placed it on a hook. He performed the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath, using the ritual items— twisted candle, spices, and wine—that Nesha’s mother had laid out for him. Then he said the magic words:

“I have found a groom for you, Nesha. A new arrival in Memel, a serious, religious, hard-working, and ambitious young man, originally from Salant, and highly recommended by Rabbi Salanter, may he live for long years.”

“Yes, Papa.” So it was true! Nesha luxuriated in the wave of delight that washed over her.

“The young man’s name is Dov Behr son of Yehiel Michael,” he continued. “A scholar, may his light shine in Israel. He has completed his studies in Telz. A fine young man of twenty-three years, your own age, my daughter.”

Nesha did not even try to speak.

Her father waited a moment before adding, almost as an afterthought, “And so my daughter is pleased?”

It was not really a question. She didn’t need to be pleased, if it came to that. And of course she was pleased. Her face was glowing with pleasure.

“Yes, Papa,” she managed to say at last.

Her father went on to say that he hoped she would be deserving of such a fine young man. That she had been raised to be a modest young woman, and he would be proud to see her become a virtuous wife and, God willing, a mother of pious sons, and so on.

Nesha did not need to be told once again about being a virtuous wife. Her whole education at home had prepared her for it.

Her thoughts were on a new idea that had entered her mind. It had to do with just one word in Papa’s description of her future husband: ambitious. Lately the word seemed to be in everyone’s mouth. And in conversations, it was always coupled with another word—America. “My apprentice is ambitious,” the baker’s wife had said last week, nodding toward the boy sweeping the floor. “He’ll go to America and become rich some day.” America! Would that be her destiny?

From within her reverie, she noticed her father looking at her expectantly. “I’ll do my best, Father, God willing.” These seemed to be the right words, for he smiled benevolently and nodded to her, signifying that the conversation was over.

She turned to leave the room, glad to be alone with all the new thoughts that were tumbling about in her mind.

America. She was ready for it. She was ready for her ambitious bridegroom to carry her off to America. Some girls were so attached to their childhood home and family that they wept at their own weddings. Not Nesha! She wouldn’t weep at leaving home. She was already infatuated with the man she had not yet met—a shadowy figure made up of little more than a black coat, a hat, and a broad forehead with “ambition” written on it.