Uncle Leyb’s nose looked almost like a fleshy potato, red-blue against his pale, still face, which appeared practically unwrinkled from a distance. Maybe there were wrinkles, even quite a few, but they were hidden beneath a few days of thick and yellow-grey stubble. Berl the Barber, ever the rational fellow, decided to leave the corpse unshaven. Uncle Leyb’s huge, freshly washed body—not yet wrapped in the traditional white burial shrouds—was covered with an abundance of curly hairs, rust-colored with islands of grey. His hands—skilled, hardworking, and short-fingered, yet big as shovels—were placed gently over his chest, palms down. There, somewhat unnaturally and inappropriately joyful, and immediately calling attention to itself, was the reflection of the sun bouncing off the yellow-red metal of an enormously thick ring. It covered almost the entire lower phalange of his right ring finger. It had grown into the bone, as though it had been placed on the deceased’s finger at birth.
Uncle Leyb had been a shochet, the town’s kosher slaughterer, and a much esteemed cantor in Proskurov’s Jewish community. He worked in the former position every day, except of course on Saturdays, the Sabbath. For this job, he received the official consent of the authorities for this job, a rare thing in those days. This involved not a small amount of bribery, but can you really picture a religious Jew slaughtering a chicken all by himself every Friday? Impossible!
In postwar Proskurov, you could find about a hundred such religious Jews. And since their wives preferred not to chop the heads off their dear, brightly colored hens themselves, but rather to use the services of the local shochet, it would be a blatant lie to say that Uncle Leyb was a poor Jew. What’s more, even the Ukrainians, Poles, and Russians living in the town gratefully invited Uncle Leyb to slaughter their beloved little goats, sheep, or pigs. No one else in Proskurov knew how to find the heart after just a few seconds and pierce it through with a sharp knife. No one else had that miraculous ability to quickly and painlessly end an animal’s life. The non-Jews were inclined to believe those baseless rumors that it was the light reflecting off of his gargantuan wedding ring that hypnotized the beasts, as if by magic, to a peaceful end. But the Jews said that his was simply a divine gift. And the Jews were right.
Of course, the town had long ago lost its synagogue. Those Jews who had, by some chance, survived the war, remembered well how it had gone missing in 1926. In that year, the government not only destroyed the synagogue, but with equal fervor demolished the town’s Polish Catholic church as well. The Russian Orthodox church, on the other hand, was not razed, but met, it seems, a much more humiliating fate. After wresting the cross from the blue cupola, the prayer hall was turned into a warehouse for chemical fertilizers.
Thus, Uncle Leyb’s latter job, his post as cantor, unfortunately brought him all sorts of unpleasantness from the government. Nevertheless, he discharged his duties with the same enthusiasm, if not more, than in his first role. Every Shabbos morning, in honor of the Sabbath, he would put on his dark three-piece suit with a snow white shirt and wide-brimmed black hat, and head off to wherever the Jews were convening. Each time they met, the Jews gathered in a different private home. Did it really make that much difference that they had to meet in a different place each time? Not so much, the Jews said. Wherever they met, Uncle Leyb’s full-throated, stirring tenor made their prayers soar straight up to Heaven. Indeed, Heaven could not but favorably accept such prayers, guided as they were by such an august voice. And each time the cantor raised his right hand toward the sky, the candle flames flashed off his great golden ring, accentuating his faithful words.
At the end of the services the neighborhood policeman would stop by, tipped off by some of the more law-abiding non-Jews in the area. He also took his duties seriously, drawing up the required paperwork on the “Illegal Meeting of an Unregistered Prayer Group in a Private Home” and collecting the signatures of all those in attendance before making threats and taking his bribe. Then, after counting his money, he would go over to the fireplace and burn the report. The following Shabbos, Leyb Feldman’s resounding tenor would again spiral skyward along with the golden rays of his heavy ring, this time in yet another home, until the inevitable arrival of another officer protecting the good name and order of the neighborhood.
In short, Uncle Leyb was a well-to-do and much respected member of his particular community and of the town itself.
The famous wedding ring had been given to Leyb back in 1927 when it could still move more or less freely up and down his ring finger. The full-voiced, strapping young lad had little time to get accustomed to the ring. His parents had arranged a marriage for him to the most beautiful girl in the nearby shtetl of Medzhibozh, the doe-eyed sixteen year old Esterke. For over thirty years, the Jews said that Esterke was his steadfast rock, his constant source of support, and the unbreakable foundation of their growing family. And the Jews were right. Her husband sang like an angel every Sabbath, and labored with grace and perspiration as in his earliest occupation as a blacksmith during the week. The new wife was enamored with his fiery singing, just as she loved how he sweated working at the hot forge. In that time and place, while horse-drawn carts were still a major mode of transportation, a blacksmith could provide his family with a decent income.
While it was clear that Leyb’s prayers were being accepted favorably up above, Esterke’s love and care were just as important to his success. Both guaranteed the well-being of their eight children—they lost not one to the terrible famines and plagues that regularly ran through peacetime Proskurov for the better part of the 1930s.
In 1946, after five years of war, Sergeant Leyb Feldman left his artillery regiment and came back home with two badges, five medals, and a left arm crippled by enemy shrapnel. Esterke returned from Fergana, Uzbekistan, where she had been evacuated together with the children before the Nazi invasion. She returned—and without having lost a single child. The Jews said that Uncle Leyb—no longer a blacksmith on account of his injury, but now a full-time shochet—and his family were considered—and not without a hint of jealousy—the luckiest Jewish family in Proskurov. It was the unvarnished truth, so the Jews said.
The kids grew up and one by one left their little town to study and work in Vinnitsa, Odessa, or even in Kiev itself. When the youngest daughter finished medical school, moved out, and got married, ever sensible Destiny must have decided that perhaps Esterke’s mission on Earth had been completed and so Destiny sent her off to the world-to-come by means of a simple and abrupt heart attack. The funeral happened just two days before Leyb’s sixtieth birthday. Could they really celebrate under such circumstances? The Jews say that the most virtuous souls are taken back to paradise by the Almighty as quickly as possible. Esterke then, according to the Jews, surely merited a seat by the Divine throne. The Jews were right yet again.
Well, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Uncle Leyb wasn’t offended by Fate’s decision, and neither did he feel so old. What would the aging and pious Jews of Proskurov do without his mellifluous voice or, even more dire, without his skilled butcher’s hands?
But for those hundred or so pious Jews who were, for the most part anyway, still on their feet, Leyb Feldman, with his butcherly expertise, his celebrated voice, and his familiar ingrown golden ring, was still a necessary part of life in Proskurov. So, after two or three months of grief and despair, a youthful, devilish fire once again ignited in his gray eyes and his voice regained its previous strength, feeling, and solemnity. The traditional year of mourning for Esterke passed, and Leyb, with the approval of all his children coming in over the phone and through the mail, married for the second time.
From the start, her new living situation pleased her very much. And why not? The house, located on Thälmann Street (which, it was said, was named after an executed German communist, although this fact did not interest her very much) was just slightly larger, slightly more orderly, slightly warmer than all the other neighboring homes, surely more so than anything she would have been able to find in Medzhibozh. In Medzhibozh, she thought to herself, they would call this house a mansion. Photographed at the entrance, the new lady of the house stood in a crêpe de chine dress looking like a veritable queen, the neighbor’s cherry tree in white effervescent bloom behind her. And Leyb, standing next to her, appeared quite content in his dark prewar suit, seemingly polished to a shine in a few spots.
Yes, Reyzl’s womb was barren. The Jews already knew that. But what they did not know was that this is no way impeded her abilities as a great lover—experienced, creative, and most importantly, always in the mood. “My grey-haired stallion!” she moaned with passion during their nightly encounters. “You animal! More, my love, more!”
He loved hearing this and held her tight, carefully holding back the full strength of his thick, shovel-like hands. Sometimes Leyb, exhausted from love-making, fell onto his back before his insatiable wife could receive the full measure of satisfaction she so craved. In these cases, she covered him with tormentingly immodest kisses. Starting at the nape of his neck, she circled his erect nipples, tracing a delicate path of slow, deliberate, tantalizing motions with her lips until she reached his navel and went still lower. Such kisses could have worked even a dead tree trunk into a blind, bestial, and vulgar frenzy. Reaching her desired goal, she mounted, straddled his legs and guided him inside her. Faster and faster, with the rhythmic movements of her lustful, voluptuous body, she brought them both to a simultaneous and extremely pleasurable finale.
Uncle Leyb had never experienced anything like this with Esterke, who, although she loved him sincerely, was never quite so active in bed. If Uncle Leyb couldn’t forgive Reyzl for the things she did during the day, well, at least he could let pass the things she did at night.
The Jews said that, during the day, Reyzl liked to strut around like an empress. And how! She needed only a few days in Proskurov to understand that the town’s ethnic make-up differed drastically from that in Mezhibozh and that her small-town name suddenly sounded entirely too old-fashioned. This was corrected more or less quite easily. Though her husband sometimes forgot to call her “Roza” in the presence of others, he soon grew accustomed and left the name “Reyzl” for the bedroom.
Two weeks later Roza hired a maid, a middle-aged Ukrainian woman with a limp who came three times a week to put the house in order. His Esterke had done the same work all by herself, perhaps with a little help from their older daughters. “Vey!” he complained, marveling at his new bride’s laziness and prodigious ability to waste their savings. “Oh really?” said Roza. “Does the master of the house really want his wife weak and tired in the evenings?” No, of course he didn’t. And, as it turned out, she wasn’t so wasteful after all.
To the contrary, it was always Roza who was bothering Leyb to save money. A little less meat in the soup. A little less butter at breakfast. At first this seemed entirely unacceptable to him. This was his beloved butter, the kind that peasant women brought to the town bazaar by the half-pound wrapped in burdock leaves. Leyb loved this butter—its little pats covered in inviting beads of condensation—and would eat his fill every morning at breakfast. But eventually he gave in. Her provocations were unforced, but skillfully executed. After two or three months like this, his friends, who used to come over every Tuesday and Thursday for the good conversation and generous helpings of the kitchen table, somehow or another forgot their twice weekly custom. And now Leyb drank only at Shabbos dinners or holiday celebrations. So it was, said the Jews. So it was, said Uncle Leyb.
But the changes didn’t stop there. Through the same seemingly nonchalant, but dogged persistence, Roza successfully limited the number of gifts that Leyb sent his children and grandchildren. While before he usually sent presents on just about any occasion, now Leyb showed his charitable side only at birthdays and Chanukah. Uncle Leyb disapproved of the new order of things whole-heartedly—at times silently fuming, at times loudly protesting. The next summer, when Roza remodeled the house, expertly replacing some of the worn furniture, the four little rooms of their home became brighter and more livable. Uncle Leyb took his previous displeasure and shoved it inside the deep pockets of his soul, trying somehow to rationalize her actions to himself. After all, a good housewife, the Jews said, is worth more than pearls.
But Roza was restless. Thanks to her numerous new acquaintances outside the Jewish community, the demand for Leyb’s services as a butcher almost doubled and every day except the Sabbath, and he now toiled from early in the morning until late in the evening. She had also found a sufficiently taxing job for herself, teaching German two to three hours a day, four days a week, to the blockheaded but rich children of the town’s more well-to-do families. Leyb’s prewar three-piece holiday suit was given away to some poor soul. In its place, Roza ordered the best tailor in town to produce an enviably fashionable suit for her husband. “My dove, now you look like an eagle!” said Roza. Our Uncle Leyb is in full bloom, said the Jews. Decked out in his new suit, Leyb certainly looked like he was flourishing. But he didn’t even want to think about his wife’s new wardrobe, already bursting out of a second commode with all of her shoes and jewelry and make-up. How she managed to acquire all those things in the era of constant shortage was as much a secret as it was a miracle. The cherry tree in the neighbors’ garden flowered for the third time since their wedding, and yet Leyb was still dumbfounded, still in awe of Roza’s unending and ceaseless activity.
You get burned when your back is turned, say the Jews. Alas, this is also true. “Leybele!” she called out one day. “Leybele, my dove!” Uncle Leyb understood long ago that such use of the diminutive and terms of endearment, when said in the light of day, meant only one thing—that his wife had come up with yet another new and controvertible initiative. Rather than get worked up, he prepared himself internally to have a normal, peaceful conversation. But her latest suggestion stopped him cold. He was expecting anything but this. “Leybele,” she moved toward him as he sat at the table, gently curling her left arm around his neck. “Less than thirty of your adoring fans remain among the living, my love.” He stared at her without understanding, dazed. His great ring gleamed, reflecting a questioning look.
“Are you talking about the old Jews, Roza?” he asked, his soup spoon waving about in his hand as he talked. “So what? This is the natural order of things. All of them are over seventy. Reb Tsalik is ninety-four! The Almighty will take each of them when it’s his time. My time will come too one day, but not any time soon of course.”
“Don’t even talk about your time!” Roza cried. “You’re as strong as a bull. You’ll live longer even than Reb Tsalik, I don’t doubt it. But that’s not what I wanted to discuss.”
“What then?” asked Uncle Leyb, cautiously lifting his spoon in her direction.
“Anastasia Petrovna, you know her, that fat woman from the police station who brings her idiot son to my lessons. Well, she said that they’ve received an order to clamp down on secret prayer groups. D’you really need that kind of tsures on your head?
“Reyzl,” Leyb began slowly, lowering his spoon with a stern and deliberate motion. “Am I understanding what you’re suggesting? That you want me to stop singing?”
“Such a smart, considerate little boy,” said Reyzl under her breath. “Why should we have such unpleasantness in our home? Those old-timers, they can pray at home by themselves. God won’t mind. And you.”
Uncle Leyb brushed her hand off his neck, turned his giant head and peered unblinkingly into her deep black eyes. “Never,” he replied curtly. She knew that it wasn’t worth it to keep arguing, but this wasn’t the first time he had refused her in the heat of the moment. Little by little she would bring him around to her side.
Time flows, say the Jews, like oil into sacred lamps. One Shabbos followed another without any issues, but a few months later two reports of the group’s “Disobedience of the Law on Religious Cults” had not been burned as they had expected, but officially filed. The courts fined the owners of the home where the pious Jews had prayed. Somehow the community paid the fines. They were much less, in any case, than the new, bigger bribes they now paid to the high ranking officers who interrupted their meetings by banging ever so politely on the door. Roza opined that the Jews continued to meet only on account of her husband; were the cantor to go missing, the meetings would die out all by themselves. Don’t be so sure, the Jews said. But Roza was right. She let her opinion be known and began attacking Leyb more and more insistently. Yet she always came back with the same result. Uncle Leyb just repeated Never and refused to argue.
On the filing of a third report, the police lieutenant-colonel declared he would demand the arrest of the homeowner, the community chairman, and the cantor for their repeated, arrogant breaking of the law. “You have no right to forbid the practice of our religion!” pleaded Reb Tsalik, the group’s most elderly participant. “Just wait a bit and we’ll all be on our way.”
“We’ve waited long enough!” the lieutenant-colonel growled in reply. Reb Tsalik began to say something else, but instead he let out a cough and fell to the floor. The next day the community buried the pitiful old man in the Jewish cemetery.
“Look here!” cried Roza, cooling herself off with a paper fan. “Take a good look, Jews. They’ve called my husband to court. Such shame it’s brought on my family! What a disaster!”
“Stop it, Roza!” said Uncle Leyb sharply. “Nothing terrible has happened. They won’t arrest a decorated veteran.”
Roza wailed. “Even if they don’t put you in prison, I forbid you to keep on with this singing! The old days are gone, Leyb. I demand you stop singing!” She burst into tears, but her husband did not react. Quite stubborn, that Uncle Leyb, the Jews said.
The last Shabbos before his court date, Leyb sang as usual among the pious Jews. Then a black car pulled up to the small house where the Jews were praying. Only three people were taken from the room, the Jews said. The officers treated the three prisoners with the greatest respect, added the Jews, hurrying them into the car and hardly using their fists at all.
The three prisoners were held at the police station for several hours. What happened during that time no one knows, but after he was set free, Leyb did not return home. He went to the basement room where he worked. As he entered the room, the whole place stinking with the bitter bloody odor of thousands of slaughtered chickens, he removed his Sabbath suit jacket, so as not to get it dirty. He might as well not have taken it off, however. As much as he could expertly feel for the pained heart in the beasts he butchered, so much clearer could he feel the pain in his own heart. The Jews said that when they found him lying there with the blade in his breast, there was but one droplet of blood, a small, singular red stain on his white shirt.
“Well?” Roza stared into his eyes.
“It’s all the same to him, Madame Roza,” said Berl breaking her gaze. “We can cut off the finger, remove the ring, and sew the digit back on in the same location. No one will notice. Just say the word.”
“Cut it off,” she said, turning away.
A bad gift given is bad luck gotten, say the Jews. In this assertion they are, undoubtedly, also correct. Rumors began to circulate that Uncle Leyb’s ring, which Roza had so carelessly taken, fell and rolled under one of the floorboards. It was a known fact, said the Jews, that the widow decided to redo the floors shortly thereafter. But the floors had been remodeled not so long ago—so why again and why now? Yet in spite of the repairs, the ring was not to be found. Never. Was this the truth? Maybe. Or maybe it was just gossip. That was something the Jews didn’t know.
In the small, but vibrant world of Esperanto letters, there are few figures more beloved than Mikaelo Bronshtejn (b. 1949). Born in Ukraine and based in the Russian city of Tikhvin, Bronshtejn is a prolific novelist, poet, literary translator, and famed singer-songwriter who has written numerous books and recorded over a dozen albums of original songs in Esperanto and Russian. Bronshtejn first learned Esperanto—a language created in 1887 to ease international communication—in the early 1960s as was also an early leader and activist in the postwar revival of Esperanto in the Soviet Union. Bronshtejn was awarded the prestigious Antoni Grabowski Literary Prize by the Universal Esperanto Association in 2003.
Sebastian Schulman is a literary translator from Yiddish and Esperanto. His writing and translations have appeared in Words Without Borders, The Dirty Goat, Forward, and elsewhere. His first book-length translation, of Spomenka Stimec’s Esperanto novel Croatian War Nocturnal, was published with Phoneme Media in 2017. He teaches regular courses in Jewish and Russian history and culture and other topics at Smith College, Hampshire College, and at the Yiddish Book Center, where he also serves as the director of the translation fellowship program.