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by Esther Cohen
To read Part V, click here.
SHMUEL FEIGENBAUM, sixteen years older than Rivka, met her only once. It was on the High Holy Days when Rivka’s family visited Kaunas to see her uncle Mendel. Mendel was a little more prosperous than the rest. As a result, he had a different sort of wife, a wife with ambitions for silver candlesticks, for dishes that matched, for a necklace made of real pearls. Her name was Rose, and no one liked her. They said her nose was too high up in the air.
Mendel and his brother Label were born enemies. Maybe even from birth. Only two years apart, Label became a communist as soon as he could, while Mendel learned to count by counting money, any loose change he could find. They came from a family of nine surviving children (three more died of sickness, very young). Their mother Rayzel was always tired. She cooked and cooked, from early morning until she went to bed. Their father was a kosher butcher in a small village where the Jews couldn’t afford much meat. Theirs was a hard life, a life of Jewish school, of heavy meals one after another, of growing old when you were still young.
One Rosh Hashone, Mendel invited Rivka’s family to come and stay. They would all go to shul together, a fancy shul. They invited their new neighbors for dinner. Even that was unusual. Neighbors were neighbors and family was family. People did not invite strangers to dinner, even Jewish strangers. But Mendel wanted to be a different kind of person, and although his wife, who shared his ambitions, had many ambitions of her own, his wife did not like the idea of people she didn’t know, and that Mendel knew only a little, coming to eat at her careful dining room table.
Mendel, a bossy man, insistent, did not much like being questioned, and so, when he told Rose that Shmuel and his two apartment mates (the word roommate did not exist, certainly not in Yiddish) were coming, she said no and he said yes. Shmuel Feigenbaum, an older man, close to 30, was one of the strangers at dinner. Sixteen years older than Rivka, Shmuel Feigenbaum lived in Kaunas with two cousins. He’d come to work for his uncle who had a money-lending operation. He called it a bank. Shmuel was a man who looked happier than other people. Maybe because he was big, with broad shoulders, a substantial stomach, and hands as large as some people’s feet.
Rivka was a small round girl, not a woman but a 14-year-old girl. Rivka blushed when she saw Shmuel. Not just because of his size, but because of the way he looked right at her. He seemed to examine every single part of her body. As for her parts, they were soft, they were round. She was entirely untouched. Rivka knew when Shmuel looked at her that something happened. She didn’t know what.
Esther Cohen is arts and events consultant for Jewish Currents and writes a daily poem at her website, esthercohen.com.