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–55– Haunting Synagogues -­ Each stone a book; parchment every wall. Pages turn, secretly open in the night. —  Moyshe Kulbak, “Vilne” (translated from Yiddish by Nathan Halper) Strolling along in the West Seventies near Riverside Park recently, I passed the building where Aleksandr and I lived awhile before we were married. This was some twenty-­ one years ago. The mover brought our things up. We didn’t have much; one mover was more than enough. He set down his load. “Maybe you won’t be here too long,” he said, kindly. It was a day or two before I fully grasped the situation: the place we’d moved into—the tarnished sign in front said Imperial Court, in cursive, silver-­ colored letters—was something less than an apartment building. (Aleksandr, a recent arrival from a distant land, could not have been expected to be alert to the cues— that was my job.) Old women shuffled in the hallways, their fat feet packaged in brown paper secured with twine. Rent was due weekly, cash only. When I dialed my parents to tell them that we had settled in and everything was fine, I found that long-­ distance service was blocked, and no amount of importuning the clerk downstairs would get it connected. Local calls were thirty-­ five cents. You could not run a tab. You hung up the phone and you went downstairs with your quarter and your dime or two nickels, if you were relatively solvent, or else your fistful of pennies collected from the backs of drawers –56– and under the upholstery. If you came up short and thought of biding your time upstairs until you had to pass the front desk the next day on your way to work (if you had a job), you would get a call from the front desk within minutes, even if it was three in the morning, reminding you that you had incurred a debt that must be wiped out now. ————— A moaning came across the air shaft. Usually on Sunday afternoons . It would crescendo, peak, cease, begin again. And again. And, sometimes, again. On a rainy Sunday in May, the climaxes came and came, one and then another, fast, five, six, seven. From a nearby room, a man called out wearily, “Okay, enough!” Silence settled over the air shaft. We wondered about every woman we passed in the hallways, those who had their feet bundled in brown paper, and those few who did not: is she the One? ————— Next door was a tiny redbrick building, one story tall, squeezed between Imperial Court on one side, and on the other, a regular apartment building with a uniformed doorman and plantings in large earthenware pots flanking the entrance. I gave the tiny building in the middle barely a glance when I went by. I was past it in two strides: what was to see? On certain nights that seemed somehow different from all others, people in elegant, dark clothes clustered before it. They appeared well acquainted with one another. Perhaps even related. The women’s hair, what I could glimpse of it beneath hats and scarves, looked glossy and stiff. I would hasten home from work as the weekend began, hoping that I could get by the little building before the people collected. I did not want to be seen in my office clothes, heading into an –57– ordinary evening of rice and beans eaten from one plate with two forks, side by side on the floor or the futon, itself on the floor, followed by a movie or a stroll. I left the office at the same time each day, but I didn’t always make it home early enough to avoid the crowd: the meeting time in front of the little building varied over the course of the year according to some factor I could not, at the time, divine. The clues multiplied. I could no longer ignore what sort of place this was. Those little crowds made me uneasy. I should be standing with those people, I felt obscurely, and I should be dressed up like them. I should go with them inside the tiny building at the appointed hour, and I should be familiar with whatever it was that went on within its recesses. Despite my sense that there was some action I ought to take, something that, owing to the circumstances of my birth, it behooved me to know and to do, during the fourteen months we lived next...


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MARC Record
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