By Sarah Bendetsky
Translated by Anna Powell
I came to Texas by pure coincidence. The Pesach* break was on its way, and Chana, my classmate, invited me to stay over at her parents’ place on the other side of the country.
Having spent a year studying in the US, I didn’t see much but prudish Pittsburgh and distant New York. And, while I was really willing to see my family in Moscow, I realised that Texas wouldn’t be that bad of an option. For all it’s worth, I couldn’t spend the entire holiday in the dorm.
The day before our leave, I quickly dumped some clothes in my suitcase, and I was so nervous that I could barely sleep. I was wondering what it was like in Houston, at Chana’s. It’s probably all heat, cacti, cowboys and sombreros… Well, it’s the wild-wild west, of course… Latina maids, tequila, Spanish speech…
While I was falling asleep, I dreamt of meeting Chuck Norris at the airport. Of course, I would pretend to have no idea of who he is, and he would call me senorita and put my suitcase in the boot of the taxi like a true gentleman…
It wasn’t Chuck who met us, but Chana’s dad, a balding middle-aged man with reddish eyes and a tired smile. He was holding a bag with fresh buns and two bottles of mango juice.
“Daddy! Heeey!” screamed Chana and gave her dad a big hug. “Have you just finished your night shift?”
“Yeah…” He replied with a mild Brazilian accent, gave us the food and grabbed our suitcases. “I’ll have some rest later, you eat. Those cheap early flights don’t let you have decent breakfast, do they?”
“Dad’s a surgeon,” mumbled Chana, chewing. “He’s always working… But not to worry, the house will be crowded during the holiday, you’ll see.
And it was, indeed. As soon as we entered the house, I saw Chana’s enormous family. Her mum in a bright apron, her lanky brothers and freckled sisters – there were at least six people! Her aunt and uncle and a couple of nephews from Brazil, her nana in a wheelchair and a neighbour with a ficus in her hands. They all were chatting, arguing and laughing at the same time, but as soon as our car parked in the driveway, they all rushed out to meet us.
I did not expect such a warm greeting. Chana’s mum took me to the light spacious dining-room, offered me a bowl of pumpkin soup and then passed me the phone and suggested that I called my parents in Moscow so they woulnd’t worry. I was amazed. Why would Chana’s family care so much about a strange girl who can’t even speak English properly?..
On the eve of Pesach, Chana and I, her mother and other women practically didn’t leave the kitchen, as we had to peal a few buckets of vegetables and cook a thousand and one meals. Men kept bringing boxes with matzah and wine, and nana Esther was telling about how grand was the celebration in the village not far from Rio de Janeiro where she lived before moving to America.
I was simply astounded. Her stories reminded me of those told by my grandpa so much! Yet, of course, it was barely possible to make a coconut pie or guacamole for dessert in a tiny Ukrainian shtetl*…
Saturday was the first day of Pesach. Chana and I woke up at 11; despite it being so late, we decided to go to the nearest synagogue located in the annex of a mall.
The white temple of trade smelled of sweet perfume, gaudy shop windows invited to enjoy the best deals of the season. People were fussing around, carrying multiples of shopping bags.
We turned right and saw the entrance to the synagogue. On a worn door, there was a wooden Star of David, and one could see that it was carved with love.
There were about thirty people in that tiny room. The prayer was coming to an end. Men and women were separated with a mechitzah* – a rod with a shabby silk curtain. Chana saw some friends of hers and rushed to chat with them.
Trying to find a seat for myself, I noticed an elderly lady in a headscarf. She was immersed in her yellowish siddur* that had a knitted bookmark. Her finger, swollen with arthritis, was sliding along the lines, and she was singing the prayer quietly, mostly out of rhythm.
“Ein Keloheinu, ein Kadoneinu, ein Kemalkeinu, ein Kemosheinu”…*
I recognised the Russian accent immediately and sat next to her. She looked up, fixed her headscarf and gave me a big smile.
“Welcome to Houston. I’m Polina,” she said, “and what’s your name?”
“I’m Polina, too but My Jewish name is Sarah. How did you figure that I spoke Russian? I haven’t even said a word!”
“Sarah, what a lovely name! Would it suit me as well?” Polina laughed. “As for the language, your golden cherry-shaped earrings speak for themselves. Seems your mum or grandma gave them to you. One would never see anything like these in Texas. I brought exactly the same ones from the USSR thirty-five years ago. I wanted to give them to Jessica, my granddaughter, but my son thinks they are too old-fashioned…”
“You are so keen,” admitted I, “this is my nana’s gift. She passed away last year…”
“Oh, it’s all arbitrary… Life, death…. If someone is truly close to you, they stay with you forever. First you see them, then you feel them within you… That’s what my Borya said, G-d bless him, and he was right, as always…” Polina sighed and put her prayer book in her purse. “However, let’s not talk about sad things. Are you busy today? Around five? Come for a tea. I leave nearby, in a “project housing” high-rise*. And do not doubt, it’s all glatt kosher* in my place, by the strictest standard.”
Chana was standing behind Polina and showing me that we had to go.
“Sure, I’ll come,” I stood up, “What’s your apartment number?”
“255, level 13. Can you manage without the lift?”*
My stomach lurched. At that very moment, thousands kilometres away from Texas, in apartment 225 on level 13, my parents were celebrating Pesach.
I found Polina’s house easily. The high-rise made of dark brick, with bars securing its old windows, was standing out among the smooth modern houses. There were eight entrances with no signs of apartment numbers.
I randomly chose an entrance and started slowly walking up to level 13. The walls were covered with graffiti. The stairs on level three were covered with broken glass. Some teens were smoking dope on level nine. One of them wolf-whistled, so I had to speed up.
Finally, there was level 13. My knees were sore, I was sweating. Yet, not a trace of apartment 225.
“Houston, we have a problem!” flashed in my head. “Why did I even agree to come here… I need to get out of this creepy house!”
… I saw Polina in the yard. She was sitting on a bench and reading a worn issue of Tehilim.*
“There you are!” I was trying to catch my breath. “I thought I would never find you…”
“Yeah, people get lost here,” Polina smiled, “The house is so big, and we are so small. I came outside to meet you, Sarah, dear. Thank you for coming.”
There were the stairs again. Polina was holding the handrail and stopping frequently. While she was resting, she shared stories about the house and her neighbours.
“Here lives Jose, the carpenter. He’s a migrant, like you and me. He’s so handy, very talented. He was the one who carved the Magen David for our synagogue. Didn’t charge us a dime, yet he lives off the food stamps only.
Ah, and from here you can enjoy the panoramic view of the city! Would you like to see? No? Maybe later, we’ve got time before the sunset…
And here my friends, Zoya and Milya, live. Zoya is a music teacher, and Milya is a gardener. I wish you knew how gorgeous were the roses he used to grow! A month ago their son Gosha died in Afghanistan… The only child. Such a tsures, G-d forbid…”
The windows in Polina’s apartment were wide-open. I could feel the warm wind in the corridor. A tiny round table in the living room was covered with a white oilcloth, and in its centre, there was a vase with plastic forget-me-nots. There were black and white and Polaroid pictures of her family on the walls. Proms, weddings, and birthdays. We used to print photos of our loved ones back in 2002.
Polina put on her slippers and went to the kitchen. I followed her.
Benchtops and tiles looked like a patchwork quilt. Scruffy silver foil and duct tape patches were glowing.
“I apologise if something is wrong, Sarah, dear… I prepared for Pesach myself, I tried hard to do it right, but because of my age, you know, my hands are shaking. Thank G-d, not all the time yet, but more and more often… I could have done a better job, of course.”
“And… What about your son?” I asked and regretted it immediately. What a blabbermouth I was!
“My son… is very busy,” sighed Polina, “And, frankly, he thinks I am a little cuckoo. Well, it’s all our fault. We didn’t make our kids interested in our roots. We were obsessed with education, emigration, freedom of speech… We laughed at the fantasies and rituals of the elderly… What can we expect now when we ourselves are outdated…
“And what about you…?”
“Me?” Polina shrugged. “What do I know? Why would G-d care about the prayers of a nagging old lady? Her faded, constantly slipping forward tichel?.. Untidy patches in her kitchen in a Texas apartment on the thirteenth floor? Does that change anything? Who knows…
This is my way to give my parents, grandparents and even G-d himself a chance to survive… Am I right? Time will show. And for now… Let’s have tea. I have some nice apple jam. Sarah, dear, would you please get the saucers from the cupboard?”
*Pesach – one of the key Jewish holidays of the year. Dedicated to the liberation of Jews from slavery in Egypt.
*Shtetl (Yiddish) – a small town with the majority Jewish population.
*Mechitza (Hebrew) – a barrier that divides male and female parts of the synagogue, according to the Jewish laws. It can be a balcony, a wall, a fence, or a curtain.
*Siddur – a prayer book.
* Ein Kalokeinu (Hebrew) – a Jewish prayer that honours the God.
* Project housing – similar to commission housing. Subsidised accommodation for people with low income, provided according to the Section 8 programme.
*Can you manage without the lift?*– on Shabbat, using electricity, including pushing the lift buttons, is prohibited.
*Glatt kosher – a term that indicates the highest rate of kosher.
*“Houston, we have a problem!” – a famous phrase from “Appollo-13”
*Magen David (Yiddish) – the Star of David.
*Food Stamps – stamps provided to low-income population in the USA that allow to buy food.
*Tsures (Yiddish) – misfortune
*The Psalms – The Book of Psalm written by King David.
*Scruffy silver foil and duct tape patches were glowing – for Pesach, in many orthodox communities, it is common to cover cooktops and benchtops with foil to avoid contact with leaven that is prohibited during the holiday.