Morning and Evening, Pt. XIV
The fourteenth installment in an ongoing narrative, told week by week
A man, in a muffler cap and sable hat, thrust his head in through the doorflap.
“The Rebbe has come!” he announced, in a high, piercing voice. “Rebbe Meyer of Przemyslany has come to bestow blessings!”
At this, a throng of Hasidim bearing baskets of fragrant pastries burst into the room. A smell of hot poppy-seeds and jam rose up from the baskets, garlanded with wisps of steam, and the heavy sweetness of eggy dough still warm from goodwives’ ovens. They at once whisked off the cloths covering the pastries and began handing out warm cinnamon rolls and ruygelach and knobby circlets of fried dough that glistened with glazed sugar; the pauper children of Hanachiv cried out in a gleeful clamor, knocking each other with their elbows, racing to catch the pastries the Hasidim threw out into the throng and sink their teeth into the hot spiced dough. Meanwhile, their mothers, the gaunt-faced widows, stood at rigid attention, clasping their hands together. Their souls, which were accustomed to hardship—to the difficulties of a life dependent on the fruits of their outstretched hands—were open to this new and unforeseen opportunity. But it was a holiday, and therefore no money might be exchanged; and so it was only the souls of the widows that might receive the rebbe’s generosity, and not their hungry bellies, concave beneath their black garments. Chaneh-Soreh, the most aged of the widows, and perhaps the bitterest among them, muttered under her breath: “The cheapskate comes to bless us with words, when a few rubles would fill our pockets and our bellies.” And yet an expectant hush fell over the sukkah as more and more Hasidim streamed in; the cloth walls of the hut bulged out to accommodate their bulk, muffled in foxfur and lined with silk.
At last, resplendent in holiday robes threaded with gold, the Rebbe entered, his hands outstretched in a gesture of beneficence.
“Widows and orphans of Hanachiv,” he said, in his grand, booming voice, “I have come to listen to you spill out the bitterness of your hearts, to offer you ease in your hour of need. For it is God’s will that all among us pay heed most of all to the needs of the poorest, those to whom fate has been most unkind. All may approach, and receive blessings.”
And with that he seated himself with great ceremony at the empty seat at the head of the table, while his Hasidim laid baskets heaped with cinnamon-rolls and fragrant meats, and placed between them pitchers of spiced wine and pressed gooseberry juice, chilled by the air and wind. Honey-wine in clay jugs, amber as long autumn afternoons, covered the holes in the barren tablecloth; duck and chicken legs thrust knobbily up out of wooden baskets. The widows, beginning with those oldest and frailest, clustered close to the head of the table where the Rebbe sat. First among them, the queen of this wasted group of women, was Sore-Chaneh. In her piercing voice she began to recite the litany of her woes—beginning with an ailing girlhood, and continuing to tell the tale of her unhappy marriage, which had produced no children… Behind her the other widows crossed their thin arms and waited with bitter impatience.