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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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The Sidur (The Prayerbook)

By Harold Mendelsohn, '35

The Magpie, May 1935, p. 19.

The yellowed pages of the old prayer book turn slowly, one by one, under the impulse of bony, typically senile fingers. Trembling hands smooth out the book at the beginning of the Sabbath eve service and rest it on the front of the pew. Now that mind and body have been disburdened of this simple feat which has already begun to be a difficulty, the eyes of the old man are content to wander unconstrainedly from the rich velvet altar coverings, past the intricately colored stained glass windows, to the slowly assembling congregation whose faces seem to reflect the benign, calm spirit of the Sabbath. They finally come to rest on the book before them. As a small boulder, in spite of its meager size, turns aside a lumbering avalanche, so this treasured repository of the word of the Lord jolted the lumbering intellect from the material present to the ethereal past, long since decimated into whisps of fog, which would everlastingly swirl in the memory of this patriarch among patriarchs . . .

In cringing silence a small group tramps resoundingly over the frozen earth of the streets of a small Russian town. It would be well to remain mute and barely visible shadows. The hoodlums that had severely beaten the old Rabbi might be abroad again tonight. When one of the assailants had been identified as the postman's son, the magistrate had smirkingly decided that the old one must be mistaken. The group quickens its steps as the house of worship of the small Jewish population of Slobodka is discerned. The sexton opens the door cautiously and peers at the new arrivals. As they are recognized the door is thrown ajar.

"Come in. Sholom Alechem."

"Alechem Shalom," answer the others.

The attitude of fear and dejection vanishes at the threshold. The rude synagogue, fitfully illuminated by candles placed about the room, has become enveloped in the majesty of the grandeur of the Temple of Solomon. Belief in the strength of the will of God has changed downtrodden dogs into proud men. Great sheepskin coats are thrown off and fur caps are replaced by skull caps, as the pot-bellied stove in the rear of the room begins to overcome the cruelty of numbing cold. Prayer books are removed from the leather pouches in which they have been carried. The rabbi begins the service in sonorous tones. Men, whose backs have been bent to fit the wheel of ceaseless toil, give thanks unto the Lord for the day of rest and entreat His benediction on this Sabbath. After the customary closing hymn is sung, the rabbi, instead of dismissing his congregation by stepping down from the pulpit, remains hunched over and staring as if transfixed. An uncomfortable and puzzled hush falls on the room. The rabbi suddenly becomes aware of the people before him. He moistens his bloodless lips, bites them, and in a voice crushed by adversity begins, "My dear friend, the Rabbi of Minsk, sends word that we may expect the officers of conscription before the end of this week." A low groan of hate and despair is wrenched from the constricted throats of the gathering. Venom-heavied curses are bitten back in respect for the sanctity of the surroundings. It is five years since David, the tanner's son, was taken away. He was to have returned in two years. His brother returned a jabbering wreck. The smithy's son escaped his fate by means of a self-inflicted rupture. A hubbub of conversation immediately follows. Abraham, a powerful barge of a man, involuntarily finds his eyes drawn to those of his son beside him. Yes, Mischa is of age. Both rise stolidly and with perfect economy of motion stride out. As they trudge homeward, the younger man glances furtively at his stern visaged father whose manner discourages conversation.

Joyful cries of "Good Sabbath" greet them as they push open the door of their bare home. The father's curt manner immediately throws a pall of strained silence over the mother and both the small children playing at the end of the long room. Her fleshy, ageless face still glows with the heat of the great stove over which she bends. A word from the head of the family and all take their places at the table which occupies the center of the room. A matchlessly wrought candelabra instills yet emphasizes the lack of beauty in the room. The children are wary enough to sit at a respectful distance from the gleaming white table cloth. The mother covers her head with her kerchief and the children bow their heads as the father says grace. The meal is eaten, devoid of any further ceremony. As the dishes are cleared away, children again gather in a whispering circle while the father and his first-born remain at the table.

The children are sent to bed. The mother begins to wind a ball of yarn. Frequent covert glances betray an air of fearful expectancy. With a shining of his chair, a clearing of his throat, he tells the news. The yarn is snapped by an unusual deviation from the rhythmical motion. Pain as if from a physical blow widens the mother's eyes. "Our Mischa also," sobs a dry throat.

"No son of mine shall I live to see broken by the Cossacks." A fearful rage overcomes the phlegmatic hulk. He rises from his chair and suddenly reverts to cold calculation. His audience of two sit motionless, their mouths agape.

"Tonight, yes tonight, Mischa will leave for Roumania .. . l will drive you in the wagon as far as Minsk where you will remain in the house of my friend Jacob until tomorrow. He will drive you to a border village and, God willing, you will cross the border and out of the grasp of the Russian Army....Sarah, make Mischa's clothes ready."

No time for tearful ejaculations. There is a hurried search for some worn clothes to include in the burlap bundle along with some bread and cheese.

With the cessation of rushing activity before parting, the full weight of its meaning comes upon them .... For eighteen years to have loved these surroundings and in a moment to have them entirely erased! The stern exterior which young Mischa had labored to maintain was crumbling.

"They say that the families of those that escape are persecuted. I don't want to go." The tears are quietly falling from the mother's eyes. She buries her face in her kerchief.

"No, you must go," she sobs.

She takes a prayer book from the sideboard and wraps it lovingly in a white silk cloth and places it in Mischa's hands.

"Wherever you are, let the word of God strengthen you and bring you memories of us." Mischa bows before her as if before an altar and tenderly kisses her hands. As if he were a voice from afar, the father says, "We must go now if at all."

A wild ride to Minsk; another to the border village! A letter home, "I am an apprentice to a leather merchant here in Buzeur. I am feeling fine. Write and tell me how you are." But no letter from home... Perhaps somehow lost... Another. Ah! A reply. "Soon after you left... The authorities... family exiled ... Rabbi Abraham." Mischa's eyes fall on the prayer book or sidur... The only connecting link! "God protect them"...

"Come, Grandfather, the services are over!" Tears are streaming from fading eyes.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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