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The following is an excerpt of A Cobbler’s Tale by Neil Perry Gordon. It is from Chapter 52: Moshe’s Bar Mitzvah. It was provided by the author.
Clara said little in the days after Captain Berbecki’s assault on her and on her village. She talked to no one about it. The rebbetzin cautiously approached, but Clara evaded her. “I just need time,” she said, as a way not to offend.
After the dead had been properly buried, life in the village resumed, though under a dark and sinister cloud. People went about their daily lives, but hopelessness spread throughout the village like a contagious virus.
“Mama, please don’t be sad,” Moshe said, standing next to her as she washed potatoes at the basin.
“Moshe, I am not sad. What matters is that you are okay. My children are the most important thing in my life,” she said patting his cheek.
“What about Papa? Is he not important?”
She put down the potato and looked at him. “Your Papa is very important. Wherever he is, we must not forget him and pray for our reunion one day.”
“I won’t forget him, Mama,” Moshe reassured her.
A knock at the door startled Clara, “Who can that be?”
“It’s the rabbi,” said Jennie as she opened the door.
“Hello, Jennie,” he said, giving her a hug and a kiss on her cheek. “You are looking more like your mother every day. So lovely.”
“Hello, Clara,” he greeted her as he removed his coat. “Come, Hymie and Anna, and give me a hug.”
Thanks to Hashem, it’s only the rabbi, Clara thought, as she watched her children run over and wrap their arms around his skinny legs.
The rabbi sat down at the table and motioned for Clara and Moshe to join him.
“I’ve come to discuss the plans for Moshe’s bar mitzvah. His thirteenth birthday is only a week away, Clara.”
“You must be joking, Rabbi. A bar mitzvah celebration now, while we are in the midst of all this madness?”
“A bar mitzvah is no joke,” the rabbi said with a smile. “We must acknowledge Moshe’s achievements and his rite of passage into manhood.”
He placed his hand on Moshe’s shoulder and said “I know it’s hard to imagine any kind of celebration right now. There is so much pain, especially for you. But it’s important that Moshe perform the bar mitzvah ceremony when his thirteenth birthday comes.”
Bar mitzvahs are typically planned months in advance. So, when the rabbi insisted that it should proceed, she needed to prepare quickly with only days to organize the big event.
When the morning of the bar mitzvah finally arrived, Clara stood before the mirror. Adversity had not been kind to her, she observed, but she would try to look her best. As she fussed over her appearance, she shivered as thoughts of Berbecki flashed through her mind. I did what any mother would do, she insisted to herself. But there was nothing that would ever erase the shame of having given herself to that monster.
She imagined the countless women who had no doubt been attacked in the same animalistic manner. The way he had spun her around to face his desk and pushed her down, forcing her to grab the back of a chair; then lifting her skirt and pulling down her undergarments. Seconds later, he had thrust himself into her, sending a screeching pain vibrating throughout her body. The act had taken only seconds, but she knew it would dominate her memories for a lifetime.
“Mother, the children are ready,” Jennie called out.
Clara stood up, took a deep breath and walked out into the front room. “Children, let’s go to your brother’s bar mitzvah,” she said with her best forced smile.
Every seat at the Krzywcza synagogue was taken. The men who couldn’t find a seat stood in the back. Up in the balcony overlooking the sanctuary, the women squeezed in where they could. The entire Jewish population of Krzywcza had come to celebrate Moshe Potasznik’s bar mitzvah.
The stories of Moshe’s episodes, his healing powers, and his confrontation with the Russian captain had spread like a virus throughout the shtetl. The opportunity of seeing him become a bar mitzvah was the event of the year.
Friends stood up to greet and congratulate Clara as she and her children climbed the stairs to the women’s section in the balcony. At the outpouring of love and support, she fought back tears. Save your crying for the ceremony, she admonished herself.
The men crowding below on the sanctuary floor all turned and looked up at Clara. They greeted her enthusiastically. She responded by placing her hands crisscrossed over her heart, her head slightly bowed, her eyes briefly closed.
The door to the rabbi’s study opened, and out walked the rabbi, wearing his best tallit, followed closely by Moshe. The congregation fell silent at the sight of them.
Clara gasped at her son’s appearance. He looked different. A beautiful embroidered white tallit draped around his shoulders. His blue eyes looked up and found her, and he smiled. She couldn’t stop the tears any longer as they flooded down her cheeks.
Moshe stood next to the rabbi on the bimah as the ceremony began. The familiar prayers and songs filled the shul with joy. Clara watched her son, now a man, and felt her heart was bursting with pride.
The religious ceremony ended, and the rabbi stood on the bimah facing the congregation. Moshe sat in a chair next to him.
“Today is a wonderful day. I think it has been a while since I said those words. Let me say them again and cherish each one.” The rabbi closed his eyes, spread his arms wide in front of him, and said slowly, briefly pausing between each word, “Today is a wonderful day.”
The congregation nodded in approval.
“In all my many years as your rabbi, I have seen many things, both good and bad. I am sure you all can say the same.” Heads nodded in agreement. “But why do we simplify our memories into these distinct categories of good or bad? How can our complicated lives be boiled down to these two opposites?”
He paused, allowing the question to linger.
“This is how our minds work. Our memories are born of moments that are etched into our consciousness. We store these memories in the rooms in our mind,” the rabbi said, pointing his long, crooked finger to his forehead.
“When we are young, these rooms are very large and filled with wonderful, simple memories such as birthday parties. Or maybe something sad like losing a pet,” he said for the benefit of a few children poking their young faces through the balcony railing. “As we get older, our experiences, our lives, our moments create new rooms both good and bad. The good moments we store in the rooms that we keep open and easily accessible for times to share with our family and friends. This is healthy and makes us happy.”
The rabbi turned briefly to look at Moshe, smiling. “Today will be a happy day that will create a room in your mind, a good memory that you can visit from time to time.”
He paused and his expression changed from light and carefree to serious. He clasped his hands together and shook them back and forth.
“We also have bad memories. Dark moments of our lives we don’t want to remember. Where do we put these? We tend to lock them up in rooms, wrap them in heavy chains, and hide them in the deepest, darkest corners of our mind.”
Clara sat up at this remark. Is the rabbi speaking directly to me? She knew any mother would have done the same to save her child, but giving herself to Berbecki was just too hideous a memory, one that she needed to find a deep, dark corner in which to bury.
“This is what our minds like to do. It is our way of coping with tragic events in our lives. It’s how we move on.” He stopped and glanced up to the balcony where Clara stared back at him.
“While it feels good to bury the bad moments, the bad memories, it is not healthy. We think these rooms are locked up, safe from affecting our well-being. But they are not. These memories have ways of sneaking out through the cracks and poisoning the deepest parts of our minds. What happens next? We start behaving in ways that take us farther and farther away from Hashem.”
The rabbi hesitated and looked out over his congregation, now silent and waiting for his next words.
“What is the result as we lose our way? We lock up more bad memories. Our minds become warehouses of dark secrets.
“Each of us must fight the battle every day between good and bad. Between the light and the dark. You may say to me, ‘Rabbi I cannot deal with the bad. The darkness haunts my dreams.’ I have news for you; the darkness haunts my dreams too.” The congregation gave a collective gasp.
“How do we cope when we have experienced such darkness? Where can we store these memories if we cannot lock them up and throw away the key?”
He paused as if waiting for an answer.
“We accept them, we embrace them. We use them as fuel to move forward. We will not succumb to the darkness. We will move toward the light,” he said, raising his arms to the heavens.
“We have, indeed, suffered a great deal. Let us not forget what has happened. Instead let us use this dark moment in our lives to make us stronger, to give us the resolve to move forward as Jews and to follow the teachings of Hashem.”
The rabbi summoned Moshe to stand next to him and wrapped his long lanky arm around Moshe’s shoulder.
“Today is the day the light takes over the darkness. Today is when we open all the doors in our minds to both the good and the bad. We are no longer afraid. Our village of Krzywcza may be small and inconsequential in this world at war, but we will continue to carry forth the light—a beacon of hope for those who still believe in the power of Hashem.”
The congregation waited silently as the rabbi turned Moshe to look at him.
“Today, Moshe Potasznik, you are a man. But you are so much more. You are our beacon of hope. You are our light drowning out the darkness. You inspire us. You inspire me.” The rabbi paused to wipe away his tears. “Not all great men are old men. Some great men are only thirteen years old.”
The rabbi hugged Moshe, and then he turned and looked up to Clara in the balcony. He held his clasped hands out to her and said “Mazel tov, Clara.”
“Mazel tov,” the congregation replied in unison.
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