Written by: Marc Morgenstern
The Talmud says a miracle doesn’t happen every day. Sixty-three books containing the wisdom of the ages, but I, Mikha Grinblat, say the Talmud is wrong in this case. On any one particular day—sunny or cloudy, but especially cloudy—a miracle can occur. On that day, water may not be made into wine, but with an apple or two, it can become vinegar good enough for pickling.
I was leaving today for New York City: the new world, which I pictured as a bejeweled place, sitting high on a hill surrounded by smooth silver water. A place for miracles. In other words, everything that our shtetl was not. Kasrilevka huddled close to the ground, dirt-poor and Jewish—really the same thing. You’d think we would be left alone in our simmering little pot: what was there to plunder? Who was there to worry about—my father, Isaak the grinder? My mother, Rivka the pickler? Me? Still, the pogroms drew closer every day—mobs convinced that we, meager Jews, threatened their great empire.
My valise, overstuffed and strangled with rope to keep everything in, sat by the door. Next to it stood my fidl case, wide-hipped and thin-necked like a lady. They would be my only companions on the journey: days by train, then weeks more at sea on the ship from Hamburg. I’d never been farther from home than Minsk. In Kasrilevka, I knew everyone—sometimes too well. Soon, with hundreds of strangers, I would be all by myself.
Father approached me with head bowed and eyes closed, lips moving in prayer. Still, he managed to find my hand and place into it a small object, the size and heft of two stones. Rolled over and over in last week’s newspaper, tied with string, and sealed with blood-red wax, it looked like a wounded fist.
“Until you get to America, do not open it,” he said. “Absolutely do not, or I cannot vouch for what may happen to you. You might encounter a disreputable woman. You might fall overboard. I don’t know.” He looked at the earthen floor and then sideways at me, his only son, with a mix of fear and love. His eyes floated in tears, not knowing when he might see me again.
After all, I was going to America to start my true life. Soon, others in the family Grinblat would follow (that was our hope and prayer)—but when? They were counting on me—a mere nineteen-year-old musician with an infant’s English vocabulary—to establish a suitable Jewish home on another continent.
Onto my shoulder, my father tenderly laid a big paw—the same one that wrapped his gift. He was the shtetl grinder, hands rasped as if he tested all his tools on them. He probably had, being a diligent man. Also, a generous one who gave customers credit. On a less generous day, he bartered for cabbage. Not a man who’d ever used a real fist. Neither was I.
Like the tailors’ or bakers’ sons, I’d been expected to take on father’s trade. He’d patiently shown me how to hold the knife just so under the stone grinding wheel. Angle it properly to achieve the sharpest edge. But my hands were soft and awkward; knives would slip out and plummet to earth. One landed blade first on the toe of my boot. Fortunately, it was thick sheepskin.
One day, a traveler came through with a wooden box of cutlery, an entire family of clattering knives. Once prosperous, the man now offered not kopeks for my father’s services, but a groyse fidl in trade. What, you may ask, is a groyse fidl? Picture in your mind a violin that’s eaten too many potatoes, not boiled but cooked in butter. An enlarged and fattened violin with a deeper sound and three strings instead of four. I begged Father to accept it. With unscarred hands pressed fervently together, I promised to practice and learn. And I did, so that I came to perform at weddings, bar mitzvahs, simkhes, and sometimes, sadly, at funerals. Songs and songs for all occasions in my head, with never a need to write them down.
On my last day in the kitchen, the fidl cowered in the instrument case as if afraid for itself and me. I wore my old boots, knife scar now erased from the toe—a parting favor from Schuster, an esteemed member of my father’s minyan. The toes shined with linseed oil. I clicked the repaired wooden heels and bowed like the traveling musician I’d soon be, hat in hand.
“You must always walk like you know where you are going,” Father said, “even when you don’t. Especially then.”
“How else would I walk?” I said with a weak grin, trying to bring some light into the kitchen.
“My son,” Mother sobbed, “Mikha’el.” On her lips this day, my name sounded different—like she’d just named me for the first time, like I was the only Mikha’el in the world, a world taking me far away, maybe for good. One hand beat her chest like a professional mourner while the other dangled a burlap sack full of her famous pickles. My little sister, Elena, hugged me hard, leaving a puddle on my shoulder. For herself she wept, wanting so desperately to come along. Ever cautious, my father wouldn’t allow it.
In Hamburg three days later, the SS Auguste Victoria lay like a floating Minsk, portholes blinking with lanterns, belly swallowing up cargo. Smoke belched from its stacks, staining the air. The dock shook from the engines and a herd of people clucking, squawking, and stomping. Some called out to me “bompkin!”—ordering me to buy whatever they were selling: mattress, pot, apple, secret remedy for seasickness. But I knew better and also didn’t want to take my hand off my own goods for one instant. With thieves’ hands grabbing all around, I clutched my fidl tightly to my chest.
A shrill whistle blew, and I fell in line with others all bearing their donkeys’ load.
“Oy! See them,” sneered the man next to me.
“See who?” I patted the pocket bearing Father’s gift to make sure it was still there.
“Them, up there. First class.” He pointed up and up through the wooden grate and toward the fading light. There they were, in fancy clothes on the top deck, last rays of the sun shining only upon them.
“Who are they? Some Rothschilds?” I said, trying to sound as carefree as he did, even more so. He told me his name was Josef, twenty-two years of age, from a city unknown to me in Germany.
“You can read, bompkin, can’t you?” he said, handing me a list of names printed on thick paper. Yiddish and Hebrew, I could read. A little Russian. But English? Luckily, he couldn’t stop himself. “Imagine that: Baron de Rothschild himself, the richest man in the world. And Mrs. Charles Frederick Theodore Steinway, widow of the piano maker.” He pointed at the instrument case clutched under my arm. “A musician like you must know what a pianoforte is, bompkin, yes?”
“Of course I do.” From my musician friends, I had heard talk of something called a grand piano: a whole orchestra, it was said, in a huge, polished wooden box. Heard talk, but neither heard nor seen one.
“Jews, just like you and me,” he said. “Only rich.”
Observing his age, schnoz, and hat, I had to agree that we looked indeed similar, almost like two brothers. Except that a woman hid behind him, so silent in the tumult I’d not noticed her at first. She held tightly on to his arm, looking down and not at me. Even with babushka shadowing her face, she was comely.
“This is Sheyna,” he said. “She and I will marry in the United States of America.”
“Mikha,” I said, nodding to each in turn. “Unmatched.” I blushed, wishing to have said anything else. Truth was: nineteen years of age, and I had not yet benefitted from successful yenta’s work, let alone had my arm squeezed by a woman other than my mother or sister.
I followed Josef and Sheyna down narrow stairs as steep as any ladder, valise slapping my leg hard with each step. Unlike Noah of the ark, the officer at the bottom step separated the couples, waving men to the left and women to the right. Josef and Sheyna parted with bereft looks over their shoulders. They would not see each other until we were next allowed on deck, and who knew when that would be. I continued two by two with Josef to a large chamber stacked with wooden berths for storing people like so much firewood—more people than ever lived in our village.
The voyage went well enough for a time.
Except for the double stink: next week’s meals stored in barrels below and people crammed into steerage shoulder to shoulder, ass to ass, like so many pickled herring. Except for my eating through the sack of Mother’s gherkins—anything to avoid the slop served from filthy cauldrons, unfit even for farm animals. I lusted for mangel-wurzel (chicken feet), what Mother would put in soup to hint of meat when we couldn’t afford the genuine article. I tried the hard biscuits, but stopped after Josef injured a tooth on one.
Nursing the tooth with his tongue, he talked about what we’d eat upon landing in New York City: wursts exploding with juice at first bite; fat chickens running through streets, free for the plucking. The more we talked, the hungrier I became. Pulling the last pickle out of my burlap sack, I held it under my nostrils. I’d intended to save it until beholding the giant woman welcoming us to New York City, torch held high. I’d planned to greet her with a loud and thankful crunch of my Russian pickle. The scent of dill and beloved garlic, however, stirred visions of Kasrilevka and my mother at her barrel of brine, humming the folk song I’d just played for her.
I closed my eyes and took a bite.
Unfortunately, the gherkin did not bite back; it was without crunch, mealy and bland. Opening my eyes, I found it mold-green on the outside, bleached white on the inside. The pickle hung limply from my hand, feeling sorry for itself. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than Mother stroking my cheek and Father’s hand on mine, guiding me at the grinding stone. Why had I left them? Why had they let me? My empty belly ached at the thought.
Five days out and equally far from my old home and new one, the ocean got mad. How we might have wronged the Almighty I don’t know, but he punished us with black churns of waves, rain without end and evil blasts of wind. For hours and days, the boat rose with his anger and plummeted back down. Each time, I banged my head on the bunk above. All around me, poor souls retched and shat into buckets overflowing, sloshing to the floor. Whimpers, whines, cries for mercy shot out of the dark.
I prayed into the emptiness: Dear God, why have you forsaken me? Punching my chest with my fist, I waited. And waited.
Rather than a thundering from clouds above, a small voice finally rose from the bunk below me. “Mikha, what have you to complain about?” Josef moaned.
“Everything,” I said in the same grieving tone. “I should have studied harder at the shul. I should have worked more diligently to learn Father’s trade. I should not have abandoned my mother and my sister.” I tried to rend my garment but it was too soaked to rip. “No wonder this endless storm was sent to us.” The beams creaked loudly in agreement.
“That is nothing,” Josef said. The ship dove again, and we rolled and thudded together against the wall. “I’ve not seen my beloved for days. I have no idea how she fares. If we ever get out of this alive, we will marry now—no more waiting for a country we might never see.”
I crawled out of my bunk and staggered to the foot of the stairs that had brought us down to this hole. The grate at the top reflected feeble light. Beyond it, I knew a sailor stood guard, ensuring passengers in steerage stayed there during the storm. Foul liquid covered the toes of my boots. Stench filled my nostrils. Josef coughed and heaved into a bucket.
“Sailor,” I yelled in German. “Let me out!”
I climbed halfway up the steep steps, holding on to the handrail for dear life as the ship lurched. “Let me out. I need air.” Two more steps up and I could just make out a blue and white striped cap and beneath it, a face—smooth and young, almost gold from his candle’s glow.
“Landsmann, nein,” he said, and smiled through the grate. Not an evil leer looking down upon me, and no Haman’s face to make it easier for me to despise him. Instead, an open-farm-face on a man my age, probably a bompkin like me.
“Fruend,” I tried. “Bitte?”
“Nein,” he said.
“Why do you lock us here? Are we not like you?”
“For your own safety,” he said, without a crumb of apology.
“Hah!” was all I could think to say to this yankel. We both knew he truly meant the safety of first class, not us lowly, suffering creatures at the bottom of the boat.
The boat tumbled on the very next wave, tossing me downstairs toward the floating murk below. I caught myself against the edge of my bunk and somehow pulled myself onto it. Pain knifed my side. Father’s gift! I lifted out the package, patting my hands all over it like the blind village idiot, now finding red sealing wax cracked, newspaper wrapping wet and falling to pieces. Unreadable—the past washed away.
“Oy, will this never end!” Josef cried from below.
Maimonides teaches us that every man must exercise his own free will. We, he asserts, are not sheep. We alone must make our own decisions and determine our futures. I’d promised my father I would not open his gift before reaching America. But what if his package needed help?
I lit a precious candle. With a peel of paper here, a slip of twine there, I assisted my father’s package in opening itself. Inside, the sharp-edged pieces of a miniature clay man: head with sleeping features and barely a neck, one four-toed foot, and one three-fingered hand. His injured extremities grasped the last folds of paper with desperation.
A golem. My father had given me a golem.
“Ach!” I cried to God, Josef and Isaak Grinblat, hoping all would be listening. I cupped my hand to my ear to better hear their reply.
From God and Josef, I heard nothing.
The name Isaak means laughing man; I could almost hear my father—not gleeful, but huffing and snorting—furious at the state of his gift.
What’s a golem you might ask? A dumb dirt figure that, once animated by man, performs his bidding and then some. History be told, it’s a miracle worker who’s saved ghettos from destruction, but only for a time; a Jewish good luck charm that, like all things Jewish, is bound to turn unlucky soon. My father must have thought I would need its perilous power later in America. The middle of the angry Atlantic on the Hamburg-Amerika Line, I decided, was close enough.
I whispered into one chipped clay ear: “Golem, please help me.”
Perhaps it was a gust of wind entering from the lone porthole, but I felt a rustling on my ear. Open your case and play, the Golem whispered back to me.
I stood for the first time in days and braced my shaky legs against the wooden bunks. Brown, foul water still sloshed over the tips of my boots, but I couldn’t care less. At first, the groyse fidl felt like a stranger in my hands—heavy and stiff. I kissed its fat body to become reacquainted, tasting the sweet spruce. It grabbed my chin and kissed me back. One by one, I tenderly tuned each string.
Lounging in my bunk, the Golem seemed to form a smile.
My bow drew dreck: creaky complaints of where have you been? Off-key protests of how could you have neglected me? Sharp strings bit at my fingertips. Before long, though, my fidl found its heart. It wailed for our stomachs, our bones, and our families left behind. For all of steerage my fidl lamented, sad sound finding every corner of our hole.
And what happened then? Not a parting of the sea. Not a loud summons from the shofar. Bit by bit, however, the slap of rain let up, the wind eased its roar, and for the first time in days, the soft sound of breathing could be heard. In blessed quiet, steerage slept. Having done its work, Golem nestled in my pocket and slept, too—eyes closed, body at peace.
The next day rose like Adi’s first morning before he bit into the bad fruit. The sky clear, sea flat, air salty and awake, the stink swept away.
“Your music. Such a mitzvah!” exclaimed Josef, his mouth inches from my ear. He stood on his two feet for the first time in days.
“My dear father was wrong.”
“Such disrespect on such a morning! Why scorn your father today of all days when you have done such a mitzvah with your fidl?” Indeed, Jews and Gentiles alike paraded by my bunk, nodding and knocking on planks in gratitude. Their knuckles must have awakened Golem because he stirred in my pocket. I pulled him out and laid him lovingly on the bunk. Josef gasped at the sight of him.
“Father gave me this as a parting gift, but with a solemn vow,” I said. “I was not to open it until we reached America, or who knows what might befall me—or us.” Josef jumped back as if seeing a ghost. Who could blame him? Such a sight: cracked clay man, so wounded by the voyage, yet still smiling.
“But you did open it, and the seas did calm themselves,” Josef said at last. “What can be wrong with one tiny little miracle?” He stared at the Golem, then at me, and again at the Golem, but came no closer to us.
“You’ve heard tell of Golems,” I said. “Once summoned, they never stop when you want them to.”
From above came the sound of a screeching hinge, rusted and unused. The grate door at the top of the stairs smacked open against the deck. A sailor cried: “You may rise.”
No rabbi’s call was more dear to me. No invitation to bless the challah at the shabbat table more welcome. I jumped out of the bunk and, with the Golem safely in my jacket pocket, led the people of steerage upstairs. Oh, the light, like the sun was born today! The air, like the first air ever breathed by man!
On deck, Josef’s face danced with the promise of seeing his beloved again. His feet paced in anticipation. After a long line of passengers, Sheyna finally stepped out, her long cow’s eyelashes fluttering in the brightness. She struck me as thinner and paler than before, but still comely—even more so when she opened her heart-shaped mouth and told the story of glimpsing death’s door itself. Sheyna was so excitable that in describing her fever and bodily distress she forgot her modesty; her babushka slid to her shoulders, revealing chestnut hair and shapely collarbone. As they embraced, my head filled with wool, my eyes blurred. I grabbed the rail to steady myself.
“Rabbi!” Josef yelled into the milling crowd. “Is there a rabbi to marry us?”
A man stepped forward wearing hat and tallit, damp and stained but still faithfully hugging his neck. A woman placed a white handkerchief as a veil atop Sheyna’s head. Josef motioned for me to stand by his side. And thus they were married—without chuppah or ring, but with all of steerage as witnesses to the blessed event.
Someone found a drinking glass and—dear as it was to us travelers—placed it under Josef’s boot. With the resounding crack of his heel, I began to play.
I fiddled like never before—for my new friend and his wife, for the wife I did not have, for my parents at home. I bowed furiously and fingered masterfully, as if I were playing for all fiddlers everywhere, at every wedding that had ever been. From my pocket, the Golem’s little hands clapped the rhythm, driving me without company of violin, cello, or clarinet. For hours, I played alone as everyone danced circle upon circle with the bride and groom swirling in the very center; the ship churning ever closer to America.
When I finally stopped playing, the sun sagged in the western sky before us. Wedding guests sat crumpled and exhausted on the deck. My bowing arm hung limp and spent from my shoulder, fingers weeping with pain. Someone handed me a rag to wipe my sweaty face and fidl, still warm to the touch.
Out of the corner of my eye, like a vision, a uniformed servant marched in my direction. He could not be coming for a fidl-playing bompkin from a village not even close to Minsk. Yet he halted in front of me, his white gloves holding out a tray. On it was a thick paper card with hand lettering: Bratschist.
“Take it, Mikha,” Josef said from behind me. “It’s for you, Mr. Viola Player.” I took the card from the tray as instructed. “Now, bompkin, turn it over, if you please.” When I hesitated, he pulled the card from my hand and read: “Please join me at the First-Class Music Lounge at seven o’clock this evening. Signed, Anton Seidl.”
“Whoever this Anton Seidl is, it must be a joke, or worse yet, a wager at my expense,” I said, scanning the first-class deck as if the man might be up there regarding us. “Why else would someone like me be summoned someplace like that?”
“You’ve never heard of Maestro Seidl from Budapest, now conductor of the greatest orchestra in New York City?” He peered into my confused face. “And he wants you to play for him?” The servant stood before us, mute, awaiting a response. “Please tell the Maestro that the Bratschist and his second would be honored to join him this evening,” Josef instructed him. To me he added: “And you will be honored to play. Imagine the chances!”
It struck me like the back of a hand from above: Golem. Since last night, I had neither whispered again into his ear nor begged for his intervention. I’d thought he was sleeping, tired like me from our labors. This invitation must be his unbidden work, taking my life into his clay hands without even a may I? I pulled Golem out of my pocket, less lovingly this time. He emerged in two pieces: body now separated from his head. Peering deeply into heavily-lidded eyes, I didn’t know whether to thank him or beg him to leave me alone. Still, to play for a renowned Maestro…
That evening, the same servant came to fetch us. I’d tossed barrel water into my armpits. Deep in my valise, I found my other shirt—no cleaner than the first but less worn. I swiped sea salt off my fidl case. For my last preparation, I slipped Golem back into my jacket pocket, asking: How many miracles in one day?
Josef and I followed the servant up and up from steerage to second class, then to first class. I’d never climbed so many stairs, nor felt so many eyes upon me, all inquiring: What are these two steerage Jews doing here? I hugged my fidl case and yanked down my shtetl cap as if it might protect me. Even with a broken Golem in my pocket, who was I fooling? Especially with a Golem in my pocket. Josef, for his part, raised his ample nose skyward and jutted out his chin as if he belonged up here.
“Calm yourself, bompkin,” he said. But my heart pounded a dancing beat. My stained boots put one foot in front of another.
We entered a room with walls covered in velvet as if inside the tsar’s jewel box. Tobacco smoke hung in the air, illuminated by fancy gas lamps. They gave ghostly halos to the audience before us—two men and a woman. In the middle of the room, the pianoforte floated like a wooden vessel, its open top a harp-shaped sail. Thick strings glittered from within.
“Herr Seidl, Madame Steinway, Herr Rothschild,” the servant announced. I bowed feverishly, indeed more than once to each of them.
“May I present Herr Mikha Grinblat,” Josef’s voice rang out. “Bratschist außergewöhnlich.” At that moment, I regarded myself as anything but an “extraordinary violist”—just a groyse fidl player far away from home.
Herr Seidl, resplendent in black suit and stiff white tie and shirt, flung back his tails and sat down at the piano bench. Anxious bow shook in my hand. I had no idea why he had summoned me to the music lounge, let alone what he might want me to play. He hit a single note—middle C. I nervously, quietly, made sure I was in tune.
“Traurig,” he barked. He meant the “sad” funeral lamentation I’d played the night before. Placing bow to strings, I took a deep breath of smoky air. The mournful song began slowly and softly, then gathered itself, then flew from my instrument. Could all my friends below hear it? My fidl crying for them from first class?
The pianoforte erupted, sounding like dozens of hands playing. The Maestro took hold of my shtetl dirge and spun notes inside and around it that I had never heard before. His intricate lace knit with my rough wool, filling the night. If only my parents could have been watching, listening… A specter came into focus behind my closed eyes—Golem, suddenly the size of a man, sitting at the pianoforte, his remaining fingers pressing keys with mad love. He smiled back at me and I thought: Golem, how could I have so misjudged you?
We played and played until the Maestro’s hands halted and applause began. I opened my eyes to see Madame Steinway, whose name was imprinted in gold on this very piano, and Herr Rothschild, the richest man in the world. Each a Jew! Herr Seidl—not the Golem—sat erectly on the bench, applauding as well. It struck me that he knew the music intimately and well. A Jew was a Jew was a Jew.
“Herr Grinblat,” Seidl said. “Such a young man playing with the skill and feeling of an experienced musician.”
“Yes, a true artist, worthy of a chair in a fine New York City orchestra,” Josef jumped in. I pictured myself in the same fine clothes Seidl now wore, nestled among a hundred similarly attired men, each with instrument shining.
“All you need is one more viola string,” Madame Steinway. Everyone nodded politely.
“Thanks to you, Herr Seidl,” I said meekly to him, but really to Golem, who was changing my life’s course. And to my father Isaak, who’d gifted me Golem in the first place.
The Maestro reached under the elegant body of the pianoforte and brought out folded white sheets of paper inscribed with black markings.
“Well then, shall we play something else, Herr Grinblat?” he said. “How about the Bruch Concerto? Technically for the viola, but I am sure you are quite capable.” He spread the music across the top of the piano like a path. All I needed to do was follow it.
Simple. But I had never learned how to read music.
The next morning, Josef, Sheyna, and I looked out from the rail at the city before us. Rather than jeweled, New York appeared grey and charred, like the inside of a thousand chimneys. As promised all those days at sea, the Statue of Lady Liberty greeted with her torch, but also her inscribed tablets with no meaning to me.
Standing there, I recall we waited without talking—even Josef was silent for once. First class must leave the ship first, with all its trunks full of evening finery. Then second class. Then, we in steerage would be transferred to smaller boats for the trip to Ellis Island.
With my strangled valise and fat fidl case, I waited for my new life to begin. The fractured Golem weighed in my pocket. As in all the stories, it had served—and failed— me, bringing miracle and misery. Just like it had to every previous guardian.
Should I have known better? Yes. For such a young man, I already understood the yank of the earth: dropped knife, ladder down to steerage, mourning song. Of all people, I shouldn’t have fallen for Golem’s charms. So I flung the last piece over the rail and into the sea. It splashed and disappeared—good riddance!—only to bob back up to the surface.
Golem’s face looked up at me, ever smiling. Laughing even.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marc Morgenstern is a former journalist and TV news producer, and a recent graduate of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. He was recently named a finalist in the University of Arizona's Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards. His short stories have been published in Still Points Arts Quarterly, Valiant Scribe, Corners of the World: Of the Book Anthology, Soundings Review, JMWW, Blue Lyra Review and Passager Journal, among others. His work has been featured multiple times at Los Angeles' prestigious New Short Fiction Series. Marc's non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Huffington Post, and on the MOTH stage.
From Belmont Story Review Volume 6: Destination