Tale 3 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston

Social Climbing


When the people of David-Horodok discussed Rifke, as they would for many years after she had left, they never used the words "long suffering." Rifke herself would have been surprised if they had. Born poor, she thought it obvious she should hate poverty. Born plain, she thought God must have made a mistake, and resented it. But her resentment was not a small, spiteful how-could-this-happen-to-me? one. It was a full-blown, how-dare-such-a-fate-befall-me! hatred. Rifke not only despised her lot, she was incensed by it. And since a good portion of the town had also been born poor with middling looks, Rifke was far from popular. Many people longed to see her get a comeuppance, and the fact that they never did irritated them even more than her personality. However... however, Rifke had a point.

The rabbis say you can be either wealthy or poor and hate your life, but the truth is, it's a lot easier when you're poor. And for Rifke, we're not talking a little poor. We're talking haven't-got-a-piece-of-bread-to-eat poor, lucky-to-have-a-dress-to-wear poor. That's the way it was for her. Too many Jews, too few jobs and a father who rarely worked.

Fueled by force of will, Rifke intended to escape poverty, and spent her youth daydreaming the possibilities. Having found that her present wasn't worth much, she moved into the future. Winter found her indoors concocting plans instead of concentrating on chores. Summer found her hiding in the shade of the brush that lined the Horin River, devising and discarding one scheme after another... She would run away to America... no, she didn't have the money... She would leave for the city... no, she would need to know someone there and she didn't... Maybe she could disappear with the gypsies... obviously ridiculous... What were her chances of finding a lost ring and getting the reward... etc., etc. But the plan she always came back to was to marry money.

Her mouth would unconsciously munch the apple or peach or cucumber she had palmed from a market stall, while her mind considered method after method of attracting a rich khossen. By age 11 she had concluded the best solution was to attend the new Zionist cheder where boys and girls studied together. What she needed was contact with a boy; she would then make him fall in love with her. His love would overcome her lack of a dowry. She never doubted she could make this happen. Yes-cheder-cheder was the answer!

For the next year Rifke plagued her parents for money to go to school. But when parents don't have money for bread, they for sure don't have money for school.

"We can't afford cheder, and you know it!" Rifke's mother would reply to the girl's incessant hectoring.

"But I want to learn."

"Learn, schmern," Rifke's mother would say as she washed a floor, cooked a soup, baked a bread. "What does a girl need to know? To wash a floor, cook a soup, bake a bread. Maybe next year if we have a few kopkes to spare, we'll send you to Frumke the Letterwriter. You'll learn a little Yiddish; you'll read a little the Tzene Rene(1). But stop pestering. I don't read and it didn't kill me." She would conclude by pushing Rifke out the door with a basket of her freshly-baked bagels to deliver.

When Rifke could control herself, she avoided the subject with her father. However, when frustration forced her need out anyway, he would scream and yell. "It's not enough I labor in Gehenna(2) all day long to feed and clothe you? You, a girl, want education too! You're crazy!" Sometimes he accompanied his words with a slap.

"You feed and clothe me?" Rifke would laugh contemptuously. "I should live so long." Then, to avoid a beating, she would run to her bubbe's house. Fighting, fighting, always fighting. When poverty walks in through the door, quarrels fly in through the windows.

But Rifke plodded on, even without school. By observing all the promising young men in David-Horodok, her eyes finally ferreted out Nachum, son of the rich tailor Boruch Dailioker. Boruch was nicknamed Dailioker because he ran around all day like a chicken, after the golden corn of money.

Nachum was a pale young man, pale from study, a proper Jew. His wit was so sharp the town already called him Nachum the Razor-tongued. He had brains and a rich papa. Everyone said, "With the right wife beside him, he could become a macher." Rifke considered herself the right woman, but how was she to meet him? She had begun to grasp that for her, going to school was as likely as meeting Moses in Olshon Street. How to get Nachum's attention? It was a puzzle that consumed her night and day until the Sunday she found herself in the marketplace, hawking her mother's bagels to the peasants who had brought their cows and pigs and vegetables to town to sell. A young blond gentile girl, obviously distraught despite her Sunday best, suddenly stopped Rifke. The girl's brightly colored kerchief, sparkling glass beads, and embroidered apron could not hide her anxiety. "You look like a Jewess I can trust. You tell fortunes, don't you? Your people know the future?" The girl's anxious eyes fixed on Rifke's face, as if to draw out some of Rifke's special "knowledge."

Rifke was immediately suspicious. Of course she couldn't tell the future. Even agreeing to such a statement was frowned on by the rabbis since it implied that Jews were in league with the devil. But the desperation in the girl's face decided her.

"Sure. All Jews can tell fortunes." Rifke knew she already believed it, so why bother with denial? "I'll tell you what you need to know. Come with me, behind the stores over there." Rifke lead her to a secluded tree behind the block of Jewish shops that ringed the marketplace and took the young woman's trembling hand. She listened to the girl's desperate words, then told her that her true love would marry her and the baby she carried would be a son. Is it so bad to give a little hope?

"How can I repay you?"

Rifke thought quickly. The church-the huge Russian Orthodox church in the marketplace with the big onion-shaped dome, the one so big it caught the sunlight. Other Jews were afraid to enter the church, but she would go in. Then she would tell her friends all about what she saw; they must be as curious as she was. Everyone would notice her, even Nachum.

"I'll be glad to take you with me," the girl readily agreed. "You can see the gold icons of our Lord Jesus Christ, the candles, everything. I'll even ask the priest to bless you." Rifke had no intention of going that far.

Rifke stole out of her house the next Sunday as the bells began to toll, and met the girl's family in front of the wooden church wall. As she walked in behind them she was overwhelmed by the sweet smell of incense and the golden icons. Over the altar she saw the man nailed to a cross, the one with only a loin cloth on, the one the Christians call God. She sat through the service meekly, if uncomfortably, mesmerized by the candles and paintings and choreographed ritual. When the priest, with his long black beard and black cassock came by to bless everyone, she was too scared to refuse.

Rifke created quite a stir when she reported her adventure. She had been very fearful when she went in, but the girl's family had been kind and everyone else had ignored her. She rhapsodized about the beautiful church, its richness, the gold-leaf, the paintings. Her father beat her with a broom for daring to go in, but she didn't care. The other Jewish girls looked on her with awe for her audacity. The next week, as she was walking down the wooden sidewalk on Olson Street, heading toward the marketplace with her mother, Nachum came toward her with two friends. He didn't talk to her; she didn't expect it, but he shouted to his two companions as they passed, to make sure she heard, "A Jew who thinks goyishe things are wonderful is only a fool."

Rifke stopped in the street, mortified. As tears ran down her face, her mother began to understand the whole silly business with the church. She took her daughter gently by the shoulders, "Rifke, my little darling, some husbands you can't get by making a fuss. Some boys are too high and too far away. God divides the wealthy from the poor. I can't tell you why, but it has been so ever since anyone in David-Horodok can remember."

"But I have as much right to a comfortable life as anyone else," Rifke stubbornly sobbed. Then she repeated an old saw as if saying it would make it true. "A cat may also look at a king!"

"Yes, but it can't get the king to look back."

King Nachum never did look at Rifke, and Rifke, being practical as well as determined, gave up her dream of marrying him. Instead, when she was old enough she left for the di goldene medina, where she had heard the streets were paved with gold. In America she married an ambitious young man and built a prosperous life. An old lady now, she basks in the jewelry, clothing and furniture she possesses. David-Horodok she dismisses. "It was a dirty nothing of a town, so forget it."

Would David-Horodok still have been a dirty nothing to Rifke if she had found her fortune there? Who knows? The peasant girl who gave birth to a baby daughter after she married her young man, thought David-Horodok was not bad at all.

1. The women's Bible Back
2. Hell Back



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