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Jewish short story: Dimensions of Light

By Howard B. Kaplan

Howard B. Kaplan

Howard B. Kaplan

He was old, a stooped man with coarse skin and a yellowing face blotted with patches of a thorny white beard. The jagged lines surrounding his eyes creased into deep folds, and his nose looked as if were partly squashed, and partly shaved into a fine point.

There he sat on his cane bridge chair in the reddening of a dry autumn. Hunched forward, he watched his shadow become a wavering thin line as he tipped his body to the left. He tucked his elbows into his lap and shaped his shadow into an oblong, flat disc. The colors of his backyard were fading as winter approached. Maybe it was just his shadow covering the grass that made everything appear dying. But it wasn’t his fault. The sun seeped the shadow out from the marrow of his body and stretched it along the ground, a shroud for the numbing grass.

“Pa, take off that old sweater!” His daughter’s voice ripped across the back yard. “Are you crazy? You always wear that dirty thing. What’s the matter with you? You want people to think I don’t take good care of you? I spend hours every week doing your laundry and cleaning up after you, and you wear that schmata. And what do I get? No thanks from you. No thanks from anyone in this house. At least you can
find something clean to put on.”

“God damn it– she yells. Every minute a yell.” He pulled his sweater tightly around him, buttoned the two bottom buttons, and then waved his right hand to shoo Gittel away as he turned his head from her.
Shimson liked his sweater, a black, wool cardigan stained with bits of the refuse from the garbage cans that he took care of in the alley behind their house. The sweater had holes under both armpits, and the right pocket was torn along the dotted seam. Yet it was comfortable, and it was his. He remembered when Gittel had given him the sweater. She had spent evening after evening late into the night knitting, and while she worked away Al had read the newspaper, and the boys had hovered around their Zeda. They had asked if he stopped on his way home to buy them cakes from the bakery. How his kinder had loved sweets, especially chocolate. So he had always stopped at old man Perwins’ on Twelfth street. It wasn’t such a hard thing to do. Only two more blocks to walk from the bus stop. And half the time Perwin had given the little cakes for the boys free of charge. Always on Friday Shimson brought home slices of seven layer cake for the whole family. He had never forgotten. Not even once.

His Gittel had been different in those days before the boys had gotten so big and had gone off to school. When the rest of the family was readying for sleep, she would still be busy with her knitting. How many times had he found her late at night sleeping on the sofa with the lights on and the knitting resting on her lap? And she smiled sometimes then. The sweater was for his birthday, his last birthday before his wife Rachel had died. Gittel never had yelled at him before his Rachel had died. No. She didn’t yell so much at all, back then.
He turned to her. She was still waiting for him.

“Gittel, is time? I want to go now.”

“No, Pa, you’re not going. How many times do I have to tell you? What’s the matter? It’s always the same thing with you. Where do you think you’re going to anyway? We won’t throw you out– You’re not going. It’s just like you to carry on. Can’t you get that idea out of your head? You want to kill me with your questions?

“Nu. So what’s to do?” he said to himself.

“Pa, come in before it gets too cold,” Gittel said as she turned to walk back to the house. She stopped, hesitated and then added, “Come in and eat now Pa. It’s better if you I’ve finished your dinner before Al gets home.”

Shimson looked up, and watched her until she stepped into the back door of the house. He looked around, and again watched his shadow stretch and change forms as he bent to the right, and then leaned to the left. Shimson lifted himself out of the chair and sat down on the lawn. He placed his hands on the tips of the blades of grass, and tried to tickle the palms by moving his hands lightly back and forth. Feeling no sensation he wriggled his fingers down into the earth and pushed his fingers forward so that the withering blades of grass rose from under his hands and stood stiffly erect between his fingers. The earth was moist and cold against his skin, and he shivered while he squeezed his fingers together. Finally, he made a fist with each hand and pulled the grass out from the soil, root and all.

“I see you,” a soft, high pitched voice taunted.

“I see you,” joined another voice.

“Where? Gittel did you yell? Gittel?” Shimson called out.

Two boys of near eleven years old ran from his backyard gate as Shimson pushed himself up to trace the echoes he heard.

“I see you…see you,” they called as they scampered away.

Those boys, back again. What is it they want? All the time they come and all the time the time they make yells at me. I didn’t do to them nothing and all the time they come to make trouble. Always they make me look around the backyard. Maybe they take something. Maybe they hurt something. And they all the time make messes. Always something to do with them. God damn it. They make messes, all the time messes.
Shimson looked behind the thick mulberry bushes, and inside the dark garage. He opened the backyard gate that blocked out the alley, and checked behind the three barrel shaped metal garbage cans, but he could not locate the voices. His heart beat wildly, and even though it was chilly, Shimson was sweating. He needed to return to Gittel’s house where it was warm and safe. Besides he wanted to tell her not to be afraid of the voices. He had made them go away.

He looked for 1his daughter in the house. Shimson walked first into her bedroom. She wasn’t there. He knocked on the door of the bathroom; when he heard no answer, he pushed it open and looked quickly around. “Tochter, you there?” Still no answer.

Finally, he found her in the kitchen. When he saw her, though, he did not call to her. Instead, he shuffled quickly back to his bedroom. In the dark, his stiff fingers fumbled around the surface of a dulled mahogany dresser until they struck against a six inch square wind up clock. Without looking up, he turned from the dresser and taking small scraping steps made his way back to the kitchen. His shoes scratched along the white linoleum floor, leaving thin, black smudges. Gittel must have heard him, but did not look up. He pushed the clock at his her.

“Is the right time, Gittel?”

“Yes Pa.”

“I mean, is mine clock like your clock?”

” Yes yes yes. It’s the right time, already.”

“What time is it, tochter?”

“Pa, what’s the matter with you? See for yourself. My God Pa! You don’t have to keep asking me. It’s five thirty!”

“Five thirty , eh Gittel?” There was plenty of time. “Pa, put your clock away. Come and eat.”

“Is it time?” Shimson asked again. “Pretty soon.”

“Now, Pa, before Al gets home.”
* * * * * * *

Shimson watched as Gittel placed the boiled chicken soup and a plate of steamed carrots and broccoli in front of him. His Rachel had taught Gittel not to over cook the vegetables, but to make them soft and sweet. Every day Gittel prepared two different meals, one for Shimson, and a different one for her and Al. Now too much trouble for her, Shimson thought. Was better with the boys home. There was plenty of talk with those boys. The kinder knew from baseball and from school. And from girls, even. Same like mine village back home. Mine friends made up mountains to climb, and gave fangs to sparrows. Same thing. With the kinder home, Al been a mensch. Such happiness with the family. Al knew from curve balls and batters. The boys all the time talked to me and Al too. Al talked about mine junk business. Always with the advice. ‘Keep warm. Don’t make the horse sick from the wet and cold. Mine business made me strong, a real shtarker. More strong than ball pitchers. How the boys laughed, and Al and Rachel also. “Is Friday today, tochter,” Shimson said quietly. “Al should make from the prayers.

Shimson knew the Sabbath prayers by heart. He didn’t need Al to read them. Shimson thought of his Rachel standing before the Sabbath candles, the orange flame flickering as she covered her eyes with the palms of her hands. The family was warmed by her presence. So long as Rachel was alive the Shabbat was honored. Even in Al’s house. The boys would return home early enough to shower and change from their street clothes. They’d come to the table scrubbed and shining in a white dress shirt and pressed black pants. And they had kisses for the Grandma, and for the Zeda also. After the dinner, I made the blessing for the family, and then Al would make the blessing for the boys, my kinder.’May you be like Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh.’ Then Rachel would look on me, and say to the family,”Shah.And when it was just so, I’d bless mine Gittel: ‘May god bless you as He blessed Sarah, Rachel, and Leah.’ Been good then. Now is ‘Pa, eat. Fast. Pa don’t make such noises. Hurry, before Al is home.’ Gittel with her worries. ‘Pa, make dry on the chin’ She worries for what? For Al? He don’t talk. Stares at his food like a old man. Shimson laughed out loud at his last thought. Gittel looked up from the sink, turned toward father, and then looked away.
* * * * * *

Shimson finished his dinner, and returned to the outside to check on the garbage. Maybe they forgot to take away. God damn it, he thought. Goyisha kopfs. never tell them nothing. They did again. He brushed the swarming black flies off from the rusted lid of the first garbage can, and jerked it off. The stench of decay jumped at him, but he also brushed it away. Shimson shoved his left arm protected by his wool knit sweater into the garbage can, feeling around for its contents.

“Shit” he muttered, “they didn’t take away. Nothing. What’s the matter with them? God damn goyisha kopfs” Maybe the boys with their trouble and messes been coming back.The boys from mine village did not have time to make from nothing trouble. Especially for the old ones. The old ones were honored for their years, and for their learning. It was a gift to spend time and to study at the table with the elders on Shabbat. You had to be chosen.

All day in cheder, the boys studied the holy books, analyzed and memorized important arguments from the Commentaries, and learned every dot and tiddle from the Torah. Who had time for messes? Not Shimson. By age ten he had learned his studies so well that his village’s Rabbi had sent Shimson off to study with the famous Hasidic Rabbi of Lublin. By age fourteen, Shirnson had memorized the entire Torah. The Rabbi of Lublin had played a memory game with his students. Shimson would be blindfolded, and the Rabbi would place a pin in Shimson’s hand. The Rabbi would then randomly open the Torah scroll, and Shimson would touch the pin to it. The Rabbi would read whichever line the pin touched, and Shimson still blindfolded, would complete reciting the remainder of the Torah section from memory. Shimson and five other of the Rabbi’s fifty three students would always pass the Rabbi of Lublin’s memory test. Not until Shimson had written his “Challenge To Rashi” at age sixteen, did he return to live at home. Because his “Challenge” had made use of the arguments of the secular philosophers Spinoza and Zola, Shimson was discredited and feared. Still, he had stood his ground and participated in his Village Elder’s study group where his ideas were mostly tolerated, although not accepted.

Hunched over, Shimson began swaying, first to the front and then to the back, but he did not move from his spot in the alley. His mumbling became sing song and his words changed to a soft hum. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the colors of the backyard in the warmth of a high afternoon summer sun. He told himself green like thick grass, yellow like the wild butter cup flowers, black like the fertile earth. Though he said the words over and over again like a magic enchantment, he could not make the pictures appear. White, white morning snow was all Shimson could see, cleaning and shimmering like a diamond in sunlight. The snapping sound it made as his legs crushed it to the frozen soil scratched at his ears. The air tasted of ice water. like a drink from a spring river. As he strode in bouncing steps, snow became trapped in the inside of his black fur lined goulashes and gnawed at his ankles. He broke from a half jog into a full sprint. Shimson kicked out with his legs as he ran. forcing his knees high into the air and then placing his heels firmly against the ground. He half sang and half laughed out loud as he strained to run faster and faster. The sound of metal striking against metal rang in
Shimson’s ears. Shimson was happy. They were coming to take it away. The goyim with their big truck and strong scooping machine hadn’t forgotten him after all. Next would be Shimson’s garbage cans that would sing out as the wastes were emptied into the big truck. Content, he returned to his cane chair in the backyard to study again the grass, and his shadow.

As he sat spending time, the colors of the twilight changed. The purple blue horizon became frosted with lucid orange streaks, wide and narrow, abbreviated and expanding like lightnings’ scarification burnt into the sky. Shimson heard the low whistle of the breeze curling through the brittle fall leaves. The leaves made a rustling sound like that of a dancing girl’s twirling skirt. He wondered at the hollow tones made by the air as it swirled around his pursed lips. He exaggerated the rounded shape of his mouth, and forced his breath to quicken. He strained to hear the harmony of a familiar chant. He tried to remember the old words that pricked at his consciousness. The wind’s sonorous whistle became louder. For a moment the ringing of tossed garbage cans jarred him, but he forced the clatter away. The melodies were becoming distinct, their rhythms blanketed and warmed his chilled body. As Shimson began to hum the lyrical chant, he visualized the musician’s calloused hands chording the worn wooden balalaika and his thick fingernails plucking the ivory strings.

Shimson clapped his hands together in time to the music spinning in his mind. “Proschay te nivaya derevnya, Proschay te tsigganskaya lyubov,” he half sang and half whispered.

The words floated along the river, and the orange streaked sky made the river’s rolling waves a reflection of liquid fire that sprang at Shimson’s eyes.

“Louder, let the music play louder,” Shimson shouted over the joyous voices. “Come Rachel. Let us go greet our guests ..”

The mahogany hopa covered with palm frons and laced with white marsh lilies was left standing. The entire village had come to their wedding. The old men blessed the bride and gave the groom advice on raising a family. Rachel’s father, Reb Avrom, a short, thin man dressed in a long black coat and wearing a black knit yarmulke, was a teacher of the Torah. and respected by the entire village for his knowledge of both the holy books and the secular world. Using acceptable religious sources, he could argue against the Commentaries, and like Shimson, he could recite the entire Torah by heart. Rachel left Shimson to stand beside her father. He whispered in her ear that it was Rachel’s duty to make sure that her husband studied the holy books. He warned her that Shimson could be hot headed, and even a heretic. Was he not the man who along with his wild, young friends swam the river separating their village from the Gentiles to fight the peasants? True Shimson claimed a holy mission, and he did return with the body of the dead kidnapped boy so that the poor family could performa proper Jewish burial. Even so, it could have been Shimson to be the next one mourned. Yes, Shimson was one who must be handled. And above all else, regardless of Shimson’s arguments, she must be observant and insist that hers be a family that honored the Almighty. Only by such behavior would she come to know the blessings of Ruth and Esther as did her mother and her mother’s mother before her. And then Reb Avrom directed Rachel to bring her husband to him.

“You must honor God with prayer and study.” Reb Avrom began. “That has been the way of our people. the way of your father of blessed memory.

“And you must honor my daughter with kindness and good works. Shimson, with God’s help you can achieve much. But always remember our God. the God of Abraham, Isaac. and Jacob must be your God and the God of your children.”

Shimson bent down to his father-in-law. glanced quickly at Rachel and saw ·the worry on her face. He turned back to Reb Avrom. and kissed him on the check. “You worry too much Reb Avrom. So you talk too much. I shall always honor you and your daughter. Now please God, Reb Avrom bless my Rachel and me.”

Shimson watched as his mother and Rachel’s mother fussed over the food for the dinner. The mamas instructed everyone. The chickens must be roasted deep brown, but not dried out. The kasha must be served hot with onion and mushroom grayy lightly poured over it. The challah had to be served immediately after the Rabbi had finished chanting the prayers over the wine and the bread. And the cut crystal water decanters had to be set out on each table. The men’s hands and heads waved at one another as they talked. Then women dressed in long wool dresses with yellow and dark blue kerchiefs moved from one conversation to the next sharing the stories they had saved for such a time of joy.

Rachel left Shimson and Reb Avrom to visit a few moments with her sisters and girl friends before the dinner was to be served. Shimson saw Rachel force a smile, and then turn her head to the side to conceal her tears from him. Her long red brown hair flowed onto her breasts. He thought her skin was the color of the snow covering the peaks of the Beresdeve mountains.

The prayer over the wine was said, and people began to drink. Shimson felt his blood warm, and his heart race. How he loved these people, this moment together. And how he loved his Rachel.

“My, friends! ” Shimson shouted to the other young men of the village who poked at his shoulder. His voiced boomed over the echoes of the music. “You shove at each other and joke that women must be gentle, and you say I should tell you of my Rachel. But I will not. No. I will not turn her beauty into ramblings to be passed on from your babbling tongues into insensitive ears.”

One of his friends reached for Shimson’s waist coat, and pulled him away, worrying that Shimson was·at best going to start a shouting match with another of his friends, or at worst end up in a fight. But Shimson could not be stopped from shouting his piece. “I will just say my friends, is this not a bride, a wife? Eat what there is to eat, dance to the tunes. Shimson has his Rachel. Shimson has his wife!”

Hands reached out to grab at the food, and tongues licked the last drops of wine from the bottles. Music played and the people danced. The young women watched the young men kick their legs out straight in front of them while doing the kossazshkey. The old ones laughed and clapped their hands in time to the music. Then the unmarried young women formed a circled and holding handkerchiefs in their left hands. began the graceful. twirling circle dance. The young men quieted, and smiled while they watched the girls’ long skirts sway and flow to the movement of the dance. The celebration contintled into the darkness of night.

Shimson watched Rachel. She was at one time part of the festivities and removed from them. He saw Rachel look toward her mother. father and brothers, but she did not walk over to them. She is with me. Shimson thought. It is for us the party is made. and the songs sung. And now it is time for it to end. Let my friends leave with their women. Let the old men with grey beards spotted with black shoots and heads heavv from drinking too much shnaps gather their families and return home. Let the girl’s voice made hoarse by too many songs and too much laughter seek rest. Let Rachel and me share solitude with the soft sighs of night.

The once sweet music that had become a driving cacophony suddenly ended. They were alone. At first as they lay in bed, they studied each other’s nude form. In the dark they hesitated, reached out to each other, and hands touching, came together. Shimson caressed Rachel’s breasts as she gently pressed her lips against the side of his neck. He felt her warm breath rush against his skin and her body tense against his. Shimson held her tightly as she pressed harder against him. The rhythmic moving of their bodies grew stronger and faster. Rachel rested her head on his chest, and Shimson became lost in the warmth of her body.

Shimson’s fingers glided along the contour of Rachel’s body, following the path of her spine down to the inside of her thighs, and then both his hands skated up the sides of Rachel’s ribs until his arms embraced and held her. He smelled the freshly washed aroma of Rachel’s hair, the perfume of her body, and pressed her against him as Rachel encircled his legs with her own. The sounds of the night were no longer conceived by the wind but by the irregular gasping breaths of Shimson and Rachel. The blending movement of their body engulfed their senses as they became one.

“Pa! come inside. It’s getting cold and dark. Pa!” Gittel called. “Old man,” she muttered. The thought “selfish, old thing” jumped at her, but she pushed it away.

Gittel glanced down at her arms, then forced herself to look away from the sagging pockets of flesh which folded out from her armpits. She took a step in the direction of the backyard growing unfamiliar in the graying sunset. Her legs lined with dotted purple veins quivered involuntarily with each step she took. It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time he brought me in from the cold. Held my hand. We went
places together. Now he can’t take care of himself, won’t let me care for him. He fights me. In his way, he fighs me

“Pa– it’s getting too cold out here for me. Don’t make me go looking for you. You’ll catch pneumonia, Pa.”

My beloved is mine, Shirnson whispered in Rachel’s ear. “Pa! Come in here now!”

“Rachel, why do you tremble at the noises of the night?”

“Where are you, old man? I can’t stay out here anymore. Come on Pa. Where are you? Are you all right?”

“Ssh. Ssh my Rachel, my love. I am here.”

“Shimson, I love you. I love you forever.”

Into the orange brightness of early day they slept in comfort, undiminished in time.

This story appeared 54 years ago in the Atlantic Monthly and later in the Detroit Jewish News.  It is reprinted with the permission of its author Howard B. Kaplan, who now resides in San Diego.

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Copyright 2016 San Diego Jewish World

One Response to “Jewish short story: Dimensions of Light”


  1. […] A second short story by Men’s Club member Howard B. Kaplan has been published on San Diego Jewish World.   Here is a link:  […]

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