Ice cream. Just the word alone, without even being able to lick it, taste it and feel its sweet cold burning on my tongue, makes my mouth water. Such a tasty, chocolate-buttery word “ice cream”; it melts in my mouth and warms my heart.

And although that tasty word is always on my tongue, it is, as if to spite me, intimately bound with another word – tonsillitis. This awkward, bitter word, which has its own nasty pharmacy-smell, is also always on my tongue. Well, not on my tongue, but on my mother’s.

“Mommy, I want ice cream!”

“No more! You just had such bad tonsillitis!”

Yes, the two opposite words match much like my new pair of boots. The right one fits perfectly; I can walk and run and jump. The left one, though, pinches me so badly that I can’t even take a step. I have to keep my toes curled the whole time.

It’s the middle of summer. I’m lying in bed. My neck is wrapped in my mother’s woolen shawl, which has two things going for it: it warms me like a stove and it itches as if an army of starving ants is biting me. My mother hands me a plate with a waffle cup, and it isn’t empty. My heart pounds with excitement. It’s the exact type of waffle cup that ice cream is sold in.

I know those cups well. I’ve seen them lined up, one inside another, in the bird-coop-like booth with plywood walls where a plump woman with a round face and red cheeks sells ice cream. Standing in her starched white apron, she uses a spoon to fill the waffle cup with ice cream before placing it on a scale. Squinting at the dancing pointer, she begins removing scoops of ice cream. I often stand there watching the scale from the other side of the window, barely able to contain myself. Enough! Leave it alone. None will be left for me!

Enthusiastically, but with a little suspicion, I glance at my mother.

“What is it?”

“Can’t you, guess? It’s that thing you love so much.”

I am ready to yell, “Hurray, ice cream!” but my tonsillitis announces itself with a stabbing pain in my throat.

“Doctor Soybl prescribed this,” my mother explains. “Ice cream is the best medicine for you now.”

Our family doctor is a grey-haired man of average height with sincere, childlike eyes that take everyone at their word. Every day you can see him walking down the street in his faded, light coat, which was once apparently a dark blue. Over his black boots he wears a pair of clumsy galoshes, and he keeps a worn-out leather portfolio held tightly against his body with his arm. The round wooden end of his stethoscope often sticks out from the portfolio’s outer pocket. I know that inside the portfolio’s inner pocket is a pad with prescription sheets.

Doctor Soybl is a regular visitor to our home due to my frequent bouts of tonsillitis. He only has to open the door of our veranda for me to know who is there. I recognize him not only by his soft sing-song voice but also by the groaning squeak of his old boots.

At first, you can hear the squeaking coming from the hallway as he stamps a few times, pulls off his galoshes, and removes his coat. Then, the squeaking accompanies him into the kitchen, to our lead washbasin, where he rinses his hands with soap and dries them with a towel left especially for him. By the time he finally approaches my room, it seems more and more with each step he takes that it isn’t his old boots that are squeaking but rather something inside me. No, I’m not the least bit afraid of Doctor Soybl. He isn’t going to give me any shots, God forbid. But he is a doctor. And doctors are, well, doctors.

I know that he will soon sit down at the end of my bed and say, “I see, boy, that our throat is hurting us again,” as if not I but both of us are crawling through the wilderness of that awful tonsillitis. The doctor will prod my throat below my jawbone with his cold, soft fingers. Then he will take a little silver spoon that my mother has brought from the kitchen and I, an experienced patient, will open my mouth wide, stick out my tongue, and choking, barely manage a soft “ahhh.”

Today the whole process repeats itself. But this time, the doctor presses my tongue so hard against my bottom teeth with the spoon that I scream “ahh” not only because I’m supposed to but also because I’m actually afraid that I’m about to bite off my tongue.

“Yes,” the doctor says, half singing the word as he finally takes the spoon out of my mouth. “You’ve sure got something to brag about with swollen tonsils like these.”   

He tussles my hair and stands up.

“Well now, my boy. I’m going to write you a prescription that will soon get you back on your feet.”

I hear the creaking of his boots again but barely notice it. What really interests me is what Doctor Soybl and my mother are whispering about in the other room.

“We can’t put it off any longer!” Doctor Soybl says in a quiet but assured voice.

“But maybe…” my mother begins, seeming lost.

“No maybes,” Doctor Soybl says. “As soon as he recovers a bit, we’re going to get him ready for the operation.”

*

A few hours later my mother is handing me a plate with a waffle cup and Doctor Soybl’s medicine.

“You know I can’t give you any cold ice cream,” she says. “So, I warmed it up a bit.”

Warmed-up ice cream? I’ve never heard of such a thing before. But do I have a choice? Let it be warmed-up ice cream, so long as it’s ice cream.

I take the plate from my mother and try the unusual medicine. I sit for a while licking my lips and think to myself that everything adds up. The ice cream is just as white and sweet as cold ice cream, but all and all, the flavor reminds me of a simple semolina porridge. And I can’t stand semolina porridge. Then again, how would semolina porridge have ended up in a waffle cup? And another thing – if ice cream can be warmed up a little, then perhaps it might taste a bit like semolina porridge? In short, no matter how much I ponder the matter, I come to the same conclusion: this is real ice cream but perhaps with a slight aftertaste of semolina porridge.

While thinking it over, I fail to notice that soon nothing remains of my warm ice cream and waffle cup. Full and content, I return the empty plate to my mother.

“Thanks, Mommy! Will you give me the same medicine this evening?

“Of course, silly,” my mother laughs. “I hope you’ll enjoy it.”

I feel that the moment has come when I can ask my mother for what I want and she won’t deny me. “Mommy,” I ask, “tell me something about your hometown.”

“Well, I think I’ve told you everything there is to know,” she says. “And more than once already.”

All the same, she adjusts the woolen shawl around my neck and sits down on a chair to face me. She begins telling her story and takes my hand in her own. It seems that all the years that my mother spent in her beloved hometown, those long bygone years before I ever walked the earth, are now traveling from her hand to my hand, from her heart to my own.

Truth be told, I’m not listening to my mother’s storytelling with my usual rapt attention. Something disturbs me. I feel it gnawing at me and eating me up from the inside. Yes, the new medicine will soon get me back on my feet but what about the operation? It’s not for nothing that Doctor Soybl said that as soon as I feel a bit better, he will get me ready for the operation. How, I want to know, do you get someone ready for an operation?

I soon imagine myself being sent to the hospital, without my mother or father, all alone with nobody to help me! I picture myself being given lots of shots, made to undergo all sorts of tests, having pills crammed down my throat, and being forced to gargle with bitter mouthwash. Not a soul takes pity on me.

I remember Hersh, the young boy who died last summer. “Oh, Hershele,” came the heart-wrenching cries from our neighbor Breine’s house. “Oh, my poor child. Maybe if they hadn’t operated on you, you’d still be alive.”

I suddenly come down with a terrible fever. Every vein in my body throbs, as if someone is banging on a locked door yelling, “Operation! Operaatiooonn!”

And what if I die like young Hershele? No! I’m almost a grownup already. I’m old enough to do something. I must do something. Why am I just lying here? What am I waiting for? Flee! Yes, yes, I will run away from home.

I tear the awful shawl from my throat and jump out of bed, run into the kitchen and then into the hallway, onto the veranda, push open the door, and I’m outside. I’m free…

It’s a miserably hot day. The sun hangs over my head as I walk and walk and walk. But no matter how long I walk, the sun never moves an inch. I break out into a sweat. The red-hot dusty surface of the road burns my shoeless feet. I begin to climb a hill.

I’ve never been here before. So how do I know that the road will turn to the left shortly beyond the hill? Or that it passes through nice little green woods and that behind the woods, as if behind an enchanted wall, is a little town? I know because this is, of course, the place where my mother was born. I’m off to visit her hometown. I’ll walk down its narrow streets, each one just like the others, so small that they don’t even have names. They are always dirty and soiled because a townswoman doesn’t have to go far to pour out her wastewater. Rather, she empties out her bucket right outside the door. Not outside her own door, of course, but in front of her neighbor’s door across the street.

Soon her neighbor will run out and start making such a racket that the whole street will be able to hear: “You imbecile! You stinker! Don’t you have a better place to pour out your wastewater than on my doorstep?”

And the woman holding the empty bucket will yell: “Listen ladies, she can throw out her trash right underneath my window but heaven forbid I toss out a little bit of clean water.”

“May your filthy water gush onto your head and flood your bowels,” her neighbor will yell back, “if you dare compare it to my trash.”

When I walk by the little tailor’s synagogue, I will surely come upon Yankl the Broody Hen. That’s what the townsfolk call the small young hunchback with a thin red beard and a greasy yarmulke that looks like it’s permanently glued onto his head. People say that he went insane because of his father, who wanted him to be a kosher butcher even though Yankl, poor thing, can’t stand the sight of blood. When Yankl the Broody Hen sees someone walking by he runs up to him and begins to cluck: “Coo, give me a Co-Co-kopek, and I’ll lay an egg. Coo, Coo, Coo.” While clucking, he stretches his skinny neck, his narrow shoulders become even narrower, and a thin dull film veils his eyes just as if he were a real broody hen. Once he gets like that, he’ll cluck and beg and won’t stop pestering you until you give him the coin he’s after. Then he’ll jump for joy and scream, “I’ve tricked you. I’m not a hen. I’m a rooster, ha, ha…” And flapping with both arms, he’ll let out a full-throated cock-a-doodle-doo.

Further down the road, I will stop for a bit at Berl Katz’s barbershop. The large, crooked, round letters on the shop’s rectangular, white sign are rubbed out, and all that remains of the original Yiddish words, “Parek-makherske,” is “makher.” The town jokesters didn’t need anything more to work with. They stuck the remaining letters from the sign, which spelled “makher,” onto Berl Katz’s surname and voila, a ready-made nickname: Berl Katznmakher, Berl the Cat-Maker. How else can it be? Who lives in a Jewish town without having a nickname?

Something happened to Berl the Cat-Maker that created quite the hullabaloo in town. For a long time, you could hear the story being retold in secret in every house, in every alley, in all of the little shops, in the marketplace, in the communal bathhouse, in all five synagogues, and even in the cemetery. The story traveled from mouth to mouth so quickly and for so long that those who actually witnessed the event had to decide for themselves whether it really happened the way people said it happened or the way they had actually seen it.

It all started one day when Berl the Cat-Maker got into an argument with his business partner Velvel Loksh, Velvel the Noodle, who felt that Berl the Cat-Maker was taking all the credit for the shop and most of its money too.

“Remember, Berl,” Velvel yelled at him while standing in the doorway. “You are a cat and you will soon dream of black cats.” And he slammed the door.

A few days later, around sunset, three strange men showed up at Berl’s barbershop. The men, dressed in long white garments, looked not unlike three corpses in their funeral shrouds. Their faces, covered in soot, shone as brightly as the polished leggings of a general’s boot. Besides the barber himself, there were two customers in his shop: Motl the Ropemaker was waiting for the barber’s chair to become free and the other customer, Srol the Beadle, was taking a nap in that very chair while getting his shave. One of Srol’s cheeks had already been shaved and the other was still covered in lather.

The three men didn’t linger near Berl for long. Having surrounded the petrified barber, one of them took his shaving razor, another grabbed him tightly from behind, and the third silently took his shaving brush out of its little bowl of soap and lathered Berl’s head. The barber didn’t have much of a head of hair, yet his thin black hair was always combed just so – evenly parted and slicked back with brilliantine. Berl, poor thing, didn’t even manage to blink an eye before the strange man with the razor shaved off his nicely kept hair so cleanly and smoothly that he no longer needed any brilliantine.

Just at that moment, when the deed had already been done, the half-shaven Beadle Srol awoke from his sweet slumber. He sat there for a moment, looking into the mirror with his two sleepy eyes, apparently unsure whether or not this was a dream. Suddenly, he shot out of the chair and ran outside with the barber’s towel still draped around his neck. The half-shaven Beadle ran through the dark alleys screaming at the top of his lungs: “The dead have risen! They have been resurrected! The Messiah has come!”

The second customer, Motl the Ropemaker, poor thing, who until then had stayed in his corner, was frightened out of his wits and didn’t know where to turn. When the Beadle Srol ran away, he too got up and fled.

The next day, the whole town was aflutter. Everyone looked at the bizarre event through his own eyes and interpreted it in his own manner. After much debate, the town’s wise men came to the following conclusion: the strangers were actually three angels, who had descended to Earth to tell the world, through Berl the Cat-Maker’s shaven head, that the Messiah would soon come and that the Jews ought to get ready to leave town. Yes, everything it seemed had been explained, but there was still one thing nobody could understand: why did the angels disguise themselves as Africans? But an angel was still an angel. Perhaps they were Ethiopian Jewish angels.

Who knows just how far the story might have spread or how interesting it may have become if Velvel Loksh, after getting a bit tipsy one day, hadn’t told his friends that he was the one who used the razor to spread the part in Berl’s hair over his entire head. “He will dream of black cats,” Berl bragged to his friends. “Black cats!”

*

The sun still hasn’t moved an inch. It hangs above my head like someone has hammered it onto the sky. When oh when will the little green woods appear? I walk and walk and it seems as though the road will never end. I’m dying of thirst. My throat burns, and the burning engulfs my whole body. I’d do anything for a sip of water.

There, not far from Berl the Cat-Maker’s barbershop, near the middle of town, is an old well underneath an old walnut tree. My mother has told me many times that she’s never tasted anything like the cold, healing, magical water from that well. Life in the town began, by the way, around that very well. As long as anyone can remember, there has always been a well there. Even my grandfather and my grandfather’s grandfather reveled in the well’s sweet water. At night, when the newborn crescent moon swims above the town, young brides silently sneak out to visit the well, peering into it with fluttering hearts. Maybe what they say about the well isn’t just an old wives’ tale. Maybe there in the deep dark depths, the face of their one true love will appear.

Nobody remembers who first dug the well or who planted the old walnut tree. Not even Grandma Leah.

Grandma Leah is so old and broken down that her great-grandchildren carry her around in their arms like a little doll. They set her down on the earthen bench dug underneath the outer wall of their house, and she sits there almost the entire day, silently rocking herself, as if she wishes she were a young child in a cradle. She is a shrunken little woman who is reminiscent of the black bundle she once took to women in labor. The ancient Leah is, it seems, the grandmother of the entire town. How many babies has she delivered in her long life? She’d bathe each of them in the water from that old well and then bless each newborn soul, praying the baby would have a happy life until the age of 120. And how many stories does she know? Like birds of many breeds, her stories fly all over town and make nests in children’s souls. For every child in town, she has another story.

Grandma Leah has a special story about the well. My mother has told it to me at least a hundred times. Whenever a pious Jew dies in her hometown, his soul descends into the depths of the well. There, at the very bottom, the path that his soul will take to the seventh heaven begins. But before it can rise that high, it first needs to bathe in thousands of springs and thousands of bodies of water. The soul will be washed clean of all earthly sins and failings, and only then will it be permitted to ascend to the heavens and shine there alongside the other stars in the sky, as brightly as a bride under the wedding canopy.

*

I need to go on. I want to see my mother’s town with my own eyes. I want to listen to all of Grandma Leah’s stories and drink from the holy waters of the old well. With just one sip, I’ll soon get better, and I won’t need to have any operations.

With my last bit of strength, I manage to climb to the top of the hill. And there it is, the marvelous cool woods, so close that if you stretch out your hand, you’ll sway the green treetops. I can hear their rustling. I can even feel their freshness on my face. I’ve arrived. I’m standing not too far from that longed-for place where my mother’s life began. But I can’t see the town itself yet. The woods are hiding it from me. But I see a little wisp of transparent smoke swirling behind the trees. It’s as if a thread binds the town to the sky and the sky to the town. The violet wisp of smoke feels like a greeting from my grandfather.

My grandfather is a stove maker. Nearly every house in town is heated by one of his stoves. I’ve never seen my grandparents. And, of course, they’ve never seen me. But I know that I’ll recognize them. My mother has told me so much about them that I can picture them as if they are right before my eyes. It’s possible though that Grandma and Grandpa won’t recognize me. But I don’t believe it. Grandparents recognize their own grandchildren at first glance. And people say that I take after my mother, so they’ll certainly recognize her in me.

I imagine how overjoyed they will be to have me visit. Grandma will bake me a whole tray of pumpkin knishes, and then we’ll all sit down together at the table. I’ll sit on one side, and Grandma and Grandpa will sit on the other side, facing me. I will chew the tasty pumpkin knishes, and Grandma and Grandpa will beam at me with pride. Such a good guest. Such unexpected joy! A holiday in the middle of the week!

Suddenly, I hear shrieking coming from the town. What’s happening? Have all of the women begun arguing with each other? Perhaps some more angels have turned up in town? The pleasant little wisp of smoke from Grandma’s summer griddle begins to grow and is soon a thick black cloud that covers the sky. It looks as if the sun has gone blind.

Cloaked in the sudden darkness, I stand on the hilltop stunned, without the strength to take another step. The screams are now coming from the woods. The peaceful rustling of the beautiful treetops has turned into a heartrending cry. Hundreds of Breines, it seems, are crying and mourning their one and only Hershl. Now there is gunfire. And the longer the gunfire continues, the quieter the shrieking becomes until a moment arrives when only the trees are weeping in the black, orphaned, silence.

The darkness spreads apart like two sad halves of a curtain being drawn back. A man emerges from the smoke-filled woods. Swaying and holding both hands on his head, he runs to the hill and screams, “They’ve all been slaughtered. All the hens, roosters, and chicks.” Passing his hand over his throat, the man remains still for a moment, shakes and falls to the ground.

I run up to him.

Yankl the Broody Hen is lying on his back in the middle of the road with wide-open pupils. His hump sticks out from behind his right shoulder as if he has fallen on a stone. His red beard stands upward, and it seems that the whole sky is now affixed to the tip of his beard.

My legs go out from under me. Despondent and exhausted, I fall to my knees. I begin to sob silently. “Yankl, why are you just lying there? Why aren’t you clucking? Look, I’ve brought you a kopek. I found it underneath my dresser. I was going to use it to buy a soda, but I’ll give you the kopek. Just don’t be silent. Say something, anything.”

I quietly howl like a helpless animal that has lost its mother. I feel as if I’ve been tricked, as if I’d been promised something for a long time, and then the thing never appeared. Even worse – I’ve been robbed. I’ve been robbed of the only thing I owned, my most beautiful dream: seeing my mother’s hometown with my own eyes. Too late. I’m too late.

Not understanding why, I spread my arms wide to the sky as hundreds of generations have done before me and as hundreds of generations after me will probably do. A song tears out of my heart, light and clear like those stars that traveled all the way from the bottom of the old well underneath the old walnut tree up high into the heavens. The song was born in those holy souls, and I merely bring it onto my lips with my childish voice. I am but the shofar ringing out throughout the now emptied world. All the trials and tribulations of bygone generations now find expression in my sad, lofty Kaddish. Upon reaching the highest note, when my soul and my flesh melt into the surroundings and soar somewhere far above, a strange, false voice suddenly cuts out the wings from underneath the song. For a short moment, the sounds hang in the air, suspended between Heaven and Earth. Then, like beads on a burst string, they shoot out in all directions.

I lay my head down. My eyes fall upon the chin of a Billy goat that is completely covered in ash. The goat is standing in the very same spot where Yankl the Broody Hen lay. The point of the goat’s beard is entirely burned off, and the charred patches of its white fur look like black patches on a funeral shroud.

“Meeeh,” the goat bleats again as he threatens me with his pointy, crooked horns. I see Yankl’s greasy yarmulke caught upon one of them.

A great terror takes ahold of me. Where has this goat come from? And where did Yankl’s body go?

I take off back towards home. I run and run and the crazed goat keeps chasing after me. Soon enough, in just another few steps, he will get me. I can already feel the pinching where his sharp horns are about to tear into my flesh. High upon the hill, the goat finally catches me and performs its nasty work.

I roll faster and faster down the hill. Soon I don’t know where the ground ends and the sky begins; they’ve merged before me into one blue-green rug. I close my eyes. I need to do something. Another second and not a trace will be left of me! I would have been better off if I had stayed home and let them prepare me for the operation.

Mom, Mom, where are you Mommy?

“I’m here my son. Right here as always.”

I open my eyes with great difficulty. My head is still spinning, my feet ache as if after a long journey. My feverish visions slowly retreat away from me and return to the dark night of the past. The here and now, with all of its tangibility, shows itself clearly in the sunlight of a new day.

My mother, tired and worn out with blue patches under her eyes, sits at my side and holds my hand as if we haven’t been separated for even a moment. The rays of sunlight shine through the windowpane and become lost in her disheveled hair, turning it a golden color.

She bends down towards me, touches her warm lips to my forehead, and with a hoarse voice says, “Thank God. Your fever has broken.”

She looks into my eyes for a moment and with a sigh, as if responding to my feverish dreams, says, “Everything will be alright my son. God willing.”

Feeling her healing touch upon my forehead, her breath upon my face, and seeing her all-knowing gaze, my heart suddenly lightens, and I become calm. It’s as if I’ve taken a sip from the old well underneath the old walnut tree.

Boris Sandler (1950, Bălți, Moldova) was a classically trained violinist who left his position in the Moldovan State Orchestra to begin an unlikely career as a Yiddish writer. His first collection of fiction, Stairway to a Miracle (1986), appeared in Moscow to great acclaim. After moving to New York in 1998, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Yiddish Forward until 2016. The author of more than a dozen volumes of fiction and poetry in Yiddish, Sandler has seen his work translated into English, Hebrew, Russian, German, and Romanian. The most highly acclaimed Yiddish writer of his generation, Sandler has received every major Yiddish literary prize, including the Jacob Fichman Prize (2002), the Dovid Hofshtein Prize, awarded by the Yiddish Writer’s Union in Israel (2005), and the J. I. Segal Prize from the Jewish Public Library of Montreal for the best new work of Yiddish literature (2010 and 2014).

Jordan Kutzik is a literary translator, journalist, publisher, and law student. From 2013-2021, he was a staff writer and deputy editor of the Yiddish Forward. His Yiddish-language journalism has covered everything from artificial intelligence, spaceflight, and the Winter Olympics to debates about abortion, drug legalization, and gay marriage in the Jewish community. Besides the Forward, his journalism and translations have appeared in Yiddish-language publications in France and Israel, in Hayden’s Ferry Review, and in Have I Got a Story for You, a Norton anthology of fiction from the Yiddish Forward. A 2015-2016 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, he is currently completing a translation of Boris Sandler’s collected short fiction and novellas. Kutzik is the founder and publisher of Kinder-Loshn Publications, which releases classic works of Yiddish children’s literature in bilingual Yiddish/English editions.

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