The velvet hours, p.8
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       The Velvet Hours, p.8

           Alyson Richman
 

  * * *

  The radio reported not only the latest advances of Hitler’s army, but also the anti-Jewish laws being passed by the Reich in Poland. I had no Jewish friends but the news pained me. I began to dream more and more about my mother. I pictured her long black hair, her thin face, and her gray eyes. I saw her hands fluttering over the books that were written in Hebrew. I imagined her fingers tracing the inky black lines and turning the pages of the crisp yellow parchment. Yet still her family’s history remained a mystery to me.

  The Jewish Section of Paris was full of winding streets and small family-run stores, tailor shops, and kosher butchers. Eastern European immigrants who had fled their own countries after enduring years of pogroms and vehement anti-Semitism had flooded to Le Marais, bringing with them traces of the countries they had left behind. The air was laced with the strong, briny scent of vinegar and garlic from the pickle barrels outside the delicatessen shops and the sweet fragrance of cinnamon and dates coming from a bakery next door. I had walked there on occasion, curious about the people among whom my mother had once lived, and from whom I had become so far removed.

  I took my grandfather’s books from Maman’s bookshelf, hoping that I’d learn more of a still-emerging story. One that was as intricate as the one I was learning from Marthe, inspired by a portrait and a strand of pearls.

  I wrapped the books carefully in brown paper to protect them from the outside world, and then set out from the apartment. I went on a Thursday morning, knowing that many of the shops would be shuttered the following afternoon as the Sabbath approached. I took the Métro to the Saint-Paul stop and began to walk the cobblestone streets, my eyes wandering over the storefronts and their signs. I saw the occasional men in dark coats, black hats, and long beards who filled the streets, but I also saw young women who looked just like me—some even wearing the wide-cuff trousers that were now the latest style. I wasn’t sure where I was going or what I might discover here. But I knew I had to learn more about the books that connected my mother to her past.

  * * *

  It was right in the center of the Pletzl, the heart of the Jewish quarter, on the Rue des Écouffes, that I found a small shop with a sign outside that read: Rare Jewish Books and Manuscripts.

  I pulled my books close to my chest and opened the door.

  When I entered, I was struck by the comforting smell of paper and ink. Books lined the shelves, and I noticed two in a special glass display case. But it wasn’t as crowded as the other bookstores I had frequented in the past. An older man with an apron tied around his waist moved past me.

  I heard him holler toward the back of the store that he’d return later in the day. His accent sounded slightly German.

  In the back sat a young man, his shoulders hunched over a desk, the green dome of a brass lamp obstructing his face. All I could see was his thick shock of black hair, like the pelt of a black miniature poodle, illuminated by the light.

  He must have heard the door close behind me, for I was only a few steps into the store when he moved his head to see more clearly.

  “May I help you?” he asked politely. He placed a small piece of note paper between the pages he was reading and closed the book shut.

  I felt slightly bewildered as my eyes scanned the shelves lined with old leather volumes.

  “I must tell you, mademoiselle, we’re not a regular bookshop. We specialize in rare books and manuscripts . . . specifically rare, Jewish books . . .”

  I smiled. “Well, then, I’ve come to the right place.”

  I approached him and pulled the package of books from my chest. “Is there a quiet place where we can open these?”

  The color of his complexion changed at my suggestion, as if someone had added another layer to his coloring. His blush bolstered my confidence.

  “Yes,” he said. “Come this way, please.”

  In the store’s back room stretched a long wooden table. A lightbulb dangled from the ceiling, and he flicked on the switch.

  “Why don’t we take a look at them here? But first I should introduce myself,” he said, with a shyness I found endearing. He extended his hand. “I’m Alex. Alex Armel. I work with my father.”

  “And I am Solange Beaugiron,” I returned the introduction. “Was that your father who just left?” My curiosity had gotten the better of me. While there were many immigrants that had flooded the Marais in recent years, Alex spoke French like a native.

  “Oh, no, that’s Solomon . . . he does amazing work restoring old bindings,” Alex explained. “He used to do restoration work in Berlin. We’re lucky to have him here with us now.”

  I smiled and began to slowly unwrap the books. When I had taken away the paper and string, Maman’s two volumes, each with its own distinct leather cover and binding, rested on the table between us.

  “I never get tired of seeing what people bring in,” he said as he moved closer to the books. “May I take a look?”

  “Yes, of course . . .” I stepped away from the table so he could see the books more clearly. He approached cautiously as if assessing them visually before he began to touch them.

  I watched, mesmerized, as he examined the outside leather binding before carefully opening the first book. Just as my mother had, he opened it from left to right.

  “The rag paper is in good condition considering the book’s age,” he said. “And look at this filigree motif.” He pointed to the design printed around the border of the title page. In the center, Hebrew writing was printed in dark calligraphic type.

  “It’s quite old and very beautiful . . . printed in Venice in the sixteenth century by Giovanni di Gara, one of the great printing houses in Europe during that time. Even though di Gara wasn’t Jewish himself, he printed many books in Hebrew.”

  He took the book and now held it up closer to the light. “Whoever has had this in his possession over the years certainly took great care of it.”

  “Thank you,” I answered softly.

  “Have you had these books for very long?”

  “They belonged to my late mother. Her father had a bookshop much like yours, I believe on the Rue des Rosiers.”

  “How strange,” he said. “It’s not familiar to me . . . but my father will surely know of the store. He should be back shortly.

  “In the meantime, let’s take a look at the other treasure you have in your possession.” He let out a small laugh. “This one looks even more special than the first. I’ve been eyeing it anxiously ever since you unwrapped the paper. If I’m seeing correctly from afar, you’ve brought in something very rare . . . and I suspect quite old.”

  He reached for the larger book, the one that was as heavy as an old Bible, and opened it just as carefully as he had the last one. This book was the one my mother had read from during the last weeks of her illness. Since then, I had looked at it on several occasions, fascinated. I had not been able to remember any of the words she had once sounded out for me, but I spent hours poring over the many illustrations dispersed throughout the book. Animal and bird motifs, all painted in a bright palette of blue, red, and gold, created intricate borders. A few of the pages contained illustrations that depicted people. A man sitting at a table with his family. Another of a figure holding a staff.

  Alex squinted over one of the pages and then turned to study a few more. “This is a very, very old Haggadah, a prayer book used by the Jewish people for Passover.” His voice seemed to drop to almost a whisper. “It’s an amazing example of craftsmanship.” He turned another page and looked again at the calligraphic lines. “It’s all inscribed by hand on vellum . . . parchment made from calfskin.”

  He began to study the pages portraying what appeared to be the patriarch of a family telling the story of the slaves in Israel.

  Just as he reached to show me something else hidden within the illustrations, the bell above the store’s door chimed and we heard foo
tsteps walking toward us.

  “Alex,” a voice wafted into the back room. “Has Solomon gone for the afternoon?”

  “Yes, Papa. I’m in the back . . . with a customer.”

  The store was quite small, so within seconds a man who appeared as an older version of Alex was standing at the threshold.

  “What have I missed in the thirty minutes since I’ve been gone, besides the only pretty girl to walk into our store all day?” Other than his graying hair, the father’s resemblance to Alex was uncanny. They had the same features. The chiseled face, the strong nose, and lively green eyes.

  “Well, let’s see . . .” Alex let out a small laugh. “You missed the same beautiful girl walking in with what I believe to be a sixteenth-century copy of the Zemirot Yisrael by Najara, and what appears to be a rare example of a fourteenth-century Haggadah under her arms.”

  “Are you joking, Alex?”

  “No, Papa. Not at all. Here, come take a look.”

  His father could hardly contain his excitement. He extended his hand for me to shake. “Let me first introduce myself, Bernard Armel, bookseller and Alex’s father . . . and you are?”

  “Solange Beaugiron.”

  “A beautiful name, for a beautiful girl,” he said as he approached the table where the two books were laid out. Immediately he began examining them with careful hands.

  I watched spellbound as Monsieur Armel made great effort to minimize how much he touched the pages and how he handled the book delicately, to prevent placing any unnecessary stress on the binding. He squinted as he looked over the mysterious Hebrew writing and made a few grunted sounds, as if he were confirming something to which only he knew the answer.

  He spent only a few minutes looking at the book that was printed in Venice. It was the Haggadah that had evidently captured his interest.

  “Where did you get these two books?” I noticed right away a change in his voice, like a musician’s note that had slipped off-key. It no longer had even the slightest hint of playful flirtation. Rather, a sense of suspicion now threaded through his words.

  “They were my maternal grandfather’s,” I said, and my voice surprised me with its air of defiance. But I suddenly felt on the defensive.

  “Your grandfather was Moishe Cohen?”

  He stood silently for a few seconds before I responded.

  “Yes,” I answered again firmly.

  “Incredible.”

  I watched as Alex’s eyes focused on me. The energy had now shifted within the room. I felt like I was no longer a stranger, but someone with a connection to them and their community. Like a lost suitcase that had miraculously washed ashore.

  “I knew him.”

  “You did?” My heart leapt inside my chest.

  “Yes, quite well, in fact. It’s a small circle of people who are in the business of selling rare books, and even smaller with rare Jewish ones.

  “Your grandfather had a gift for discovering many hidden treasures scattered throughout Europe. He was immensely respected within the field and within our community here.”

  I held on to Monsieur Armel’s every word as he spoke, for I knew almost nothing about my maternal grandfather.

  “After Moishe died, I bought his whole collection. Or at least I thought it was his entire collection . . .” Alex’s father said. “Actually, I bought everything directly from your mother.

  “Your grandfather showed me this Haggadah only once, and I always wondered who had bought it . . .” He pointed to the book that Alex and I had just been looking at together. “It’s so rare and valuable, I knew he was offering it for a price few people could afford. But I would have taken great pains to buy it as an investment.”

  “Well, he didn’t sell them,” I said, my voice now softening. “My mother took them for herself when he died.”

  “Your mother . . .” His voice again changed to another key. This one almost wistful.

  He looked up from the table and began to study me, scanning my features as though he recognized something familiar in them. “You have her eyes. That beautiful gray-green that shifts in the light.” His voice drifted for a moment.

  “She was a beauty like you, and when she married your father, she shattered your grandfather’s heart.”

  * * *

  He closed the Haggadah and placed the other book beside it. “Let’s return to these in a bit . . .”

  I smiled at him. Within only minutes of meeting him, I could see both the clinical expert and the warm father he was to Alex.

  “Alex, why don’t you prepare a pot of tea for us. Bring over those little cookies Solomon’s wife baked for us this morning.”

  “Yes, Papa,” Alex said. He smiled as he stood to oblige his father’s request.

  Until that moment, I hadn’t noticed the discreet counter with the single burner and sink tucked into the far side of the room. I watched out of the corner of my eye as Alex filled the kettle with water and began to prepare the tea.

  “Come.” Monsieur Armel motioned for me to go to the desk where Alex had first been sitting when I arrived. “I’ll clear these papers and bring two more chairs.”

  I followed him as he arranged the desk into a makeshift table with chairs. Then I sat down.

  Alex arrived with a tray containing a plate of cookies and a pot of tea.

  “At your service,” he joked as he placed down the tray. He poured the tea into three ceramic cups and then took a seat himself.

  “Please take one, Solange,” his father said, moving the plate of cookies closer to me.

  I smiled. They were the type of cookies I had always associated with my mother. In better times, one could always taste the luxurious taste of butter running through them. But the thumbprint of plum jam in the center was something that was typical in her baking. Now I wondered if there were other small things she did that had gone unnoticed by me, gestures she did privately in order to keep the connection to her past alive, even if only for herself.

  Alex’s father smiled as I nibbled at the cookie.

  “May I ask, Solange, did your mother share any stories with you about your grandfather, or her life in the Marais before she married your father?”

  I shook my head no.

  “I suspected as such . . .” A small sigh escaped from his lips. “It was probably not easy for her to talk about her family, after what happened once she married your father.

  “The last time I saw your mother, she was pregnant with you, and she had sought me out to sell some of her father’s inventory. She was his only heir, and even though he had disowned her while he was living, he left everything to her at the time of his death.”

  He studied me. “She couldn’t have been more than a few years older than you are now.”

  I bit my lip. It was a bittersweet thought to imagine Maman at the cusp of motherhood.

  “She came to me first, because she knew I had been your grandfather’s friend for years. And I told her I’d buy everything from her . . . How funny she didn’t answer me when I inquired about the Barcelona Haggadah. Now over twenty years later, I know why. She had kept it for herself all along.”

  “I don’t think she would have sold it for any price,” I said in her defense. “My mother kept things that were precious to her for reasons that transcended money.” I lowered my eyes. “Though I’m sure she knew it was worth quite a bit of money . . .”

  “I would have paid handsomely for it,” he told me. “The Yisrael Zemirot is valuable, but certainly not as much as the Barcelona Haggadah. It’s priceless for many reasons. It’s not just the age and rarity of the book, it’s also the story of the people who created it.”

  I raised an eyebrow.

  “It’s absolutely extraordinary to be able to see this book resurface again after all these years. As I mentioned before, your grandfather showed it to me only once. I had he
ard a rumor that he had somehow come to own it, and I hounded him for months before he finally agreed to show it to me. That said, he always kept the story on how he acquired the Barcelona Haggadah shrouded in mystery.”

  I gazed at the table with the two books I had brought to the Armels’ shop. I had always suspected they were worth a bit of money, but I was even more grateful to learn more about my mother.

  “You have no idea how interesting the story is about how this book was created. It wasn’t just conceived as a prayer book for Passover, but as a project between two people in love.”

  Alex turned his head and looked at me. I could sense that both of us were about to hear a story that even he had never heard before.

  “This particular Haggadah was written by a Sephardic rabbi and illustrated by his wife in the fourteenth century. The couple produced only one book in their lifetime, and it’s the one in your possession.” He paused for a moment before continuing.

  “Rabbi Avram had a master calligraphic hand, and his wife had considerable artistic talent, particularly in painting. Early on in their marriage, they conceived of an idea of doing a Haggadah together. Rabbi Avram would write the story of Passover and the prayers as they were handed down over the centuries, and his wife would paint the illustrations. It took them over twenty years to finish it.”

  He opened it to one of the pages with the painted border of birds and lions. The heavy parchment was stained in places, and some of the gold leaf that had been used was almost completely gone, but the wife’s talent was clear.

  As Alex’s father told the story of this Haggadah’s unique conception, I imagined the rabbi writing with his wife working alongside him, doing the illustrations with her brushes and paint, so many years ago. It was a magical and mystical image.

 
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