‘Y know Torah, Leah Kleinbaum?’
“There was a time.” Leah sighs at this Yiddish-speaking stranger on her doorstep. Only three weeks here and already half of Haifa knows she’s a widow just arrived from Kiev. Who is this man? A farkakte suitor? More chins than she can count, and look how he leans on that cane — not exactly an advertisement for manly vigor. Still, he’s company while her daughter and son-in-law are at Ulpan classes. She steps back from the doorway. “Come in, please. Tea?”
He nods, hobbles to the sofa that somebody donated. One of its legs is shorter than the other three, so it wobbles when he sits. “In the wilderness,” the stranger says while she’s in the kitchenette, boiling water, “if you read this week’s Torah portion, Bahaalotekha —”
Oy vey , she thinks, a religious fanatic.
“— Bahaalotekha , you’ll see that the Almighty showed us when to travel and when to stay put. When His cloud hovered over the tabernacle, we rested; when the cloud lifted — His signal for us to move on. Just like He signaled you to leave Kiev and come to Haifa.”
“You’ll excuse me, but my daughter was leaving for Israel, so I joined. Not a cloud in the sky. We wanted Tel Aviv, but they stuck us in Haifa.” She dips a fresh teabag into a white mug for him, a used teabag into a white mug for herself. “Sugar?”
He shakes his head. She hands him his mug, sits on the other end of the sofa. It wobbles.
“You’re originally from Krakow,” he says.
This one’s done his research. Must be desperate for a girlfriend. Nice brown eyes, she’s got to admit. “I was born in Krakow, yes.”
He breathes harder. “And your family was in Krakow when Hitler invaded. You were vacationing with cousins in Lvov, right?”
Leah spills tea on herself, doesn’t feel the burn. How does he know these things?
His voice speeds up. “For decades we’ve been checking the immigrant lists, just in case. Your sisters are in Tel Aviv. Mama and Papa… I’ll take you to the cemetery.” With this he leans forward and embraces Leah. Tears wet her neck.
She shoves him back upright, peers into his face. Those eyes, and now that she thinks of it — something in the voice. Can it possibly be? “Yossel? Yosseleh?”
He nods quickly.
She grabs, clasps him close, as if to keep him from Chagall-flying away. “A miracle,” she whispers.
“The cloud of the Almighty lifted, and it guided you here.”
“No,” she says, laughing. “Like I said, it was my daughter. Actually, it was her husband. He’s the Zionist.”
“The Almighty made him a Zionist. His cloud to bring you to us.”
Leah sits back. Her lost brother has become one of the silver-lining apologists she can’t stand? “This Almighty who brought us together now, Yosseleh… this is the same Almighty who separated us 65 years ago, right?”
“While others stayed in Krakow, Papa rushed us out the day Hitler entered Poland. Papa heeded the clouds of war, Leah. You mystically foresaw the signs and escaped to Lvov.”
“Escaped? I went to Lvov to play with Cousin Rivka and to gobble Aunt Ida’s latkes. Who knew Hitler would invade?” Cold and hunger and terror in the forest. Decades mourning the presumed loss of parents and siblings. Leah controls the volume of her voice. “You’re saying our family is the chosen of the chosen? Then what of those war orphans with no reunions like ours?”
“Perhaps the Almighty never showed clouds to them or their families.”
“Six million clouds short, eh, Yosseleh? Your Almighty doesn’t know how to count?”
“Leah!” he snaps. “We should express thanks, not condemnation. Be grateful for the manna we have, don’t whine about the meat we miss.”
“Meat?” Her voice becomes suddenly shrill. “Meat?!”
“You misunderstand. What’s happened to you, Leah? You used to light Shabbos candles as a girl.”
“Like children know from anything.”
“Leah.” He puts a heavy arm around her shoulder. “Let’s not argue. Not now.”
She forces her voice to lullaby gently. “You’re right. Not now.” She cups his chins in her palm, rubs a stiff finger along stubble that had not even begun to grow when she saw him last. “This present moment — it’s impossible.” As was their past.
He embraces her fully, and again the sofa wobbles. He whispers against her cheek, “I can’t believe we found each other.”
“And I,” she says softly, “I can’t believe we lost each other.”
Daniel M. Jaffe, author of the novel “The Limits of Pleasure” (Haworth Press, 2001), lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.