4. Lemberg


What is our heroine doing in Lemberg? It is 1908 or 1909; she is divorced from Y’shayeh and has come here to escape Hrubiechev.

Perl D’vorah and Leib soon are seeing each other regularly. He is 25 years old, she 24. Both hope to go to America one day. By 1910 they have heard each other’s stories many times over. Leib tells of his life in Tomaschev, his marriage, the army, his desertion and his perilous escape across the Austrian frontier. Perl D’vorah, in turn, tells of Hrubiechev, her family, and her unhappy marriage to Y’shayeh.

Perl D’vorah and Y’shayeh were both fourteen when they married. At the wedding Perl D’vorah, in the orthodox manner, had her hair cut off and replaced by a wig, called a sheitel, which she will wear ever after. The young newlyweds expected a union typical for an arranged marriage. Perl D’vorah would try to be a good wife and learn to love Y’shayeh. Y’shayeh, a timid, quiet, slightly effeminate boy would try to be a good husband and provider. His meager income is supplemented by occasionally smuggling tobacco. Smuggling, practiced by nearly everyone, is profitable by avoiding the Tsar’s heavy taxes.

Years passed without children. Perl D’vorah was frequently ill and upset. Her increasing unhappiness becomes apparent to her family. Compounding the situation, disappointed relatives suspected she was barren and Tovah tried to discuss it with her. Perl D’vorah, however, refused to talk about the problem with her mother.

At eighteen, Y’shayeh was conscripted into the Russian army. Stationed near Hrubiechev, he regularly saw his wife. Still, there were no children. After five years Y’shayeh completed his army service and returns home. In time Perl D’vorah found herself more desperate than ever. At last she relented and sought her mother’s help. No, Tovah was told, Perl D’vorah is not barren; rather Y’shayeh is tim-tum, a fairy. Despite Y’shayeh’s sincere devotion, Perl D’vorah finds life with him unbearable: ten years of marriage and still a virgin!

Tovah helped her daughter obtain a rabbi’s bill of divorcement, a get, based on Y’shayeh’s failure to consummate the marriage. The rabbi, satisfied as to the facts, granted the get and Perl D’vorah chose to leave Hrubiechev, an unhappy place for her. She went to Lemberg.

One day in 1910 Perl D’vorah has something new to tell Leib. Her brother Moishe Mechel will be going to America. It seems their father cursed and hit him for adopting modern ways while on a buying trip to Warsaw. This was the final straw for Moishe. “Enough! I’m leaving,” he said. Perl D’vorah sees this as her chance. She will go to America with Moishe Mechel.

Her plan is to travel to from Lemberg to Hrubiechev and join her brother and his second family there. She will say goodbye to her parents and then travel to Hamburg where her ship will sail. Somehow, she tells Leib, they will meet and get married in America.

Froy’m and Tovah understand this is the last time will see their two children. They know crossing an ocean is just too far, too arduous, and too expensive to be done more than once in a lifetime. Worse, they are sure America will wrench their children’s Jewish souls loose. Indeed, the children aren’t nearly observant enough as it is. This somber day, amid all the goodbyes, Tovah implores Perl D’vorah to at least promise to never light a fire on the Sabbath: that is, to always observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. Perl D’vorah makes that promise.

Hamburg teems with emigrants delivered by the trainload from Eastern and Central Europe. Second class passage from East Europe to New York is fifty dollars, equal to months of wages and years of savings. Our intrepid band proudly travels second class, thus avoiding the indignities of steerage. Nevertheless there are difficulties: the intended ship burned in port and the departure is delayed until the shipping company finds a replacement. While waiting in Hamburg, Perl D’vorah’s purse is snatched. But at last the ocean crossing begins. The ship will stop in England and Ireland to board more passengers and then take the long journey to New York across the immense Atlantic Ocean.

The first evenings of the two-week voyage are no doubt a curious mix of fear and hope, apprehension and anticipation. Whatever her thoughts, this much is known: Perl D’vorah is on deck, standing by the railing as land recedes from view. As the last sight of Europe, the coast of Ireland, disappears, she reaches up and removes her sheitle, a symbol of the life left behind. Then, looking out to sea, she flings it toward the horizon.

Continue to Part Five

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