Michal's Destiny, p.3Roberta Kagan
Avram was happy to oblige. He wanted more than anything for Michal to be happy in her life with him.
July was hot and sticky. When Michal’s period began, she insisted that Avram follow the rules and sleep in his own bed. The truth was that she was afraid that if they broke this very important rule, something terrible might happen. After all, she was unclean. It was torture for him, but he knew that he must not so much as touch her hand until she was purified again at the Mikva. But as he lay in his own bed at night, he missed her. He didn’t care if she was clean or not, he longed to hold her close to him. It was a sweet pleasure he had quickly grown accustomed to spending his days anticipating.
If she didn’t feel so awful, with stomach cramps and bloating, Michal would have missed Avram too. But because of the pain, she tossed and turned all night trying to find a comfortable position. Her periods had been miserable since she had started menstruating at ten. Her mother told her that once she married the periods would get easier on her, but so far they hadn’t. Now, her mother changed her initial promise; now her mother said that once she bore a child the pain would cease. Michal could only imagine the suffering that must accompany childbirth. This was a woman’s lot in life, pain and suffering, her mother had told her.
But her mother had said that her marriage bed was to be a part of life that must be endured, and she’d found that her mother was wrong. She cherished the nights she spent in Avram’s arms. However, she could understand her mother’s viewpoint because of the kind of man her father was. And she thanked God that Avram was nothing like him.
Michal hardly ever thought of Taavi anymore. The only time she was reminded of how attractive he was to her was when she saw him at the market. Their eyes would meet for a mere second. He would look at her in a way that was far too bold to be considered respectful. And, of course, she would immediately look away. Then Michal would walk away as quickly as possible, putting as much space between her and Taavi as she could. Still, every time she saw him, she would return home and not be able to get him out of her mind. She was happy with Avram. The marriage was more than most women could dare to hope for. Michal considered herself to be very lucky. Avram was tender and gentle. He was not rough and was always careful not to hurt her. After all, she knew that there were many men who were like her papa, who resorted to physical abuse against their own families when they felt that the world outside had treated them unfairly. It didn’t matter that Michal, her brother and sister, and her mother never stood up to her papa. He was the ruler of the house and, in his mind, he had the right to strike out at the others. Of course, Michal was raised to know that she must always obey her husband and treat him with respect, regardless of his behavior. She must never argue with his decisions. After all, a good Jewish woman was taught as a child that she was inferior to her husband. Michal accepted this as a part of life. And, from the day she met Avram, she decided that she would not give him any reason to beat her. But it had all been for naught because she was pleased to discover that she cared for her husband and they enjoyed each other’s company. He was always ready with a compliment on her cooking or a sweet remark at how pretty her new headscarf looked against her skin tone. Michal had no doubt that her husband had deep feelings for her, and what woman would not be happy with that? He did thoughtful things like bringing home a few of her favorite pastries or a small bunch of wildflowers that he’d picked and tied with a ribbon. Yes, Michal knew her life was good, very good. So, what evil thing inside of her still brought about that spark, that desire to sin, when she saw Taavi? She tried to avoid seeing him when she went to the market. But somehow he had a way of finding her. Then he would look at her so brazenly that she feared the other women who were shopping would notice. She would be waiting in line to buy flour and Taavi would walk by; as he did he would stop and gaze at her, his eyes sleepy and soft, then his entire face would break into a smile. It was a captivating smile that he gave her; a smile no married woman would ever return. And Michal did not return the smile. She turned away quickly … although secretly she longed to look back even for just a moment.
Fall brought plenty of grain and butter from the farms on the outskirts of the village. It was a good year and the crops were plentiful, but the government was confiscating most of the food from the farmers, giving them little compensation. This stealing of food by the government was done not only to Jews, but to all of the farmers. Then everyone was given ration cards, which allowed them insufficient allotments to feed a family. Avram had friends who were able to get food through the black market, but it was very expensive. Avram bought what he could. In order to hide some food for the winter, Avram and Michal buried some potatoes in the ground. They would dig them up when they needed extra food, but if the ground was too frozen, as quite often it was in Russia, they would have to wait until the weather broke. Avram purchased as much wood as he was able to get his hands on. It was sure to be a cold winter and they had to find a way to keep the fires going. Some of the men, like Taavi, were strong and able to go the forest and cut their own firewood. But Avram was not so strong. He couldn’t cut down a tree.
Winter in Siberia was brutal, but since the revolution had begun it seemed even harder. Michal’s father, in his pessimistic way, had assured the family that no matter what happened, whether the czar ruled or the communists ruled Russia, life would never get better for Jews. And, sadly, he was right.
Just before the first of the year fell, several travelers came through the village on their way south. They were furriers and goldsmiths; they came to trade, but with them they brought news of the outside world. They’d told the villagers bits and pieces of stories they had heard. The visitors said that they’d heard that, as the Ukrainian army was leaving Kiev, and before the White Army took over, there were terrible pogroms in several towns throughout Russia and the Ukraine. This was petrifying news because the Jews had nowhere to go, no place to hide. The czar had made no secret of his hatred of the Jews. It had been going on for decades. Soldiers would come into small Jewish villages and destroy them. There would be no consequences for their actions because the czar had convinced the Russian population that the Jews were responsible for all of the country’s problems. And this was a way of convincing the people of Russia that, once the Jews were subdued, all of their problems would disappear. This was what the visitors who came through the Jewish settlement in Siberia said. So the people of the town lived in constant fear of what danger might be lurking.
“The Red Army will protect us,” Avram told Michal, but she had overheard the men in the village saying that the Red Army had perpetrated plenty of attacks on Jewish villages.
In fact, she still remembered her father talking about the Beilis affair. It happened eight years earlier in 1911 in a suburb outside of Kiev. Traveling merchants who came through the village shared news of the incident. Michal was only seven at the time, but she could clearly recall the fear that the Beilis trial struck in the Jewish community. A Jewish manager of a brick factory had been arrested. His name was Menahem Mendel Beilis. It seemed to Michal that for over a year she did not overhear a conversation amongst adults that did not somehow center on that name. Beilis was accused of killing a thirteen-year-old Christian boy in a ritual murder. The child was found mutilated in a cave. The prosecutor claimed that since Beilis was a Jew he had taken the child and murdered him in order to use the child’s blood to make matzo. A tremor of fear spread through Russia as the prosecutor claimed that it was part of the Jewish religion to commit ritual murders. This was the only way, he claimed, that Jews were able to make matzo. It was a ridiculous accusation. Every Jewish person, even Michal at seven years old knew that matzo was made with flour and water. In fact, the color of matzo is white. How could anyone ever believe that it could be made with blood? Finally, in 1913, Beilis was acquitted for the crime, but the damage had already been done. A seed had been planted in the minds of the people of Russia, and the czar used that fear to incite the Russian people to
Michal wished she could believe her husband that they would be safe. And, because he was her husband and the man of the house, she would never think of arguing with him, but buried deep in her heart were fears and unspoken doubts. In fact, she didn’t trust the Red or White Army. Instinctively, she knew that they were both dangerous to Jews.
She’d often thought that the problem lay in the fact that there was no Jewish homeland. Her people were hated everywhere in the world, so no matter where they went they were never safe. She’d heard the rabbi speak many times about the idea of a Jewish homeland. That was because there were always people who expressed the need for a Jewish state. But the rabbi said that they must not even consider trying to build a Jewish homeland. It was against the words of the Torah. He explained the reasons and, for the most part, the congregation agreed with him. But not Michal, she could not understand why. If there was a Jewish homeland, wouldn’t the Jews have a safer existence? Michal had heard talk of such a thing, but she was afraid to ask for explanations. Her father had taught her that she dared not question the teachings of those who knew better. Once, before she was married, she’d been serving dinner with her mother to her father and several of his male friends. One of them had made a comment that she didn’t agree with. So she’d spoken her mind. In front of the entire group, her father had stood up and said, “You are a woman. And not as smart as you think you are. In fact, you are stupid. So keep your mouth shut and listen. Never speak when men are talking.”
His eyes were red, and she saw his hands in fists. Michal looked down at the floor. She was humiliated, but she said nothing. When she and her mother were in the kitchen later that night, cleaning up the mess the men had left, her mother said, “Be glad he didn’t hit you.”
In spite of the food rations and the coming winter, Michal knew that Avram was hoping that she would soon become pregnant. But each month she shook her head and told him that she was not. She would have loved to be a mother, but at what cost? If she became pregnant, they would have to find a way to feed and care for another person, and right now there was so little they were hardly able to care for themselves. Of course, she would feed the child the milk from her own body, but she had grown so thin that she was afraid her milk would not sustain a healthy child. Michal and Avram were careful to observe every rule of Jewish law except the one about lying together. That had become not only a passionate sexual part of their lives, but a time when they shared all of their inner feelings and the events of their day. Secretly, Avram was afraid that the way he and Michal had given in to passion had angered God. And he feared that might be the reason that they had not been blessed with a child.
Avram walked to shul every Saturday. Every Friday night the couple observed the Sabbath. When she was unclean, the two of them were very careful to have no contact until Michal had been to the Mikva. But still … no baby.
When her parents came to Michal and Avram’s house for Rosh Hashanah, Michal’s father gave her a menacing look. She knew that her father was angry. After all, she should be pregnant already. Avram did not notice her father’s threatening stares. Avram and Michal spent Yom Kippur in temple with Michal’s brother, sister, and her parents. Avram’s parents were there too. The women, Michal, her sister, her mother, and her mother-in-law sat in the back, which was where all of the women sat. While the men sat in the front. The sexes were always separated.
Michal’s mother-in-law watched everything Michal did with a critical eye. And she was demanding in a demeaning way. It was a good thing that Michal’s mother had taught her that, as a wife, it was her job to please. She’d been warned from the time she was a small child that she must never oppose her husband or his family. There were many times that Michal had to control her desire to speak out. She would have liked nothing more than to tell her mother-in-law what she thought of her. Her mother-in-law would demand something of Michal, and in her mind Michal would say, “You are lazy and fat, and should try to do things for yourself instead of always ordering me around.”
But, of course, she never spoke those words aloud and she asked God for forgiveness for the sin of disrespect that always seemed to creep up in her mind. Still, she had to give thanks. Her husband was a good man, nothing like her father. So, putting up with a terrible mother-in-law was not the worst thing that could happen.
The winter descended upon the people of Eastern Siberia with a blanket of frozen snow and an icy wind that swept down from the frozen lands in the North.
Michal had been babysitting, secretly, so that she could earn extra money. She wanted to purchase yarn to knit a scarf for Avram for Hanukkah. She was almost finished. And, although she doubted that there would be enough money to spare in order to purchase oil or candles to light the menorah, she wanted to give him a gift to show her appreciation for his kindness.
Two days before the first night of Hanukkah, Avram gave Michal a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a thin red ribbon. She opened the gift to find nine small white candles. One for each night of Hanukkah and one for the shamos (candle to light the other candles).
She looked up into Avram’s kind brown eyes “Thank you,” she whispered, her fingers gently caressing the package.
He took her hand in his and held the palm to his lips. “You are a good wife, Michal. You make me very happy.”
She saw in his eyes that he spoke the truth. He did care for her. And, because he did, she wished that she could bless him with a child. But no matter how hard she tried, how many prayers she said as he expelled his seed into her womb, she still did not conceive.
By the beginning of February, the temperature dropped to negative thirteen degrees Fahrenheit. It was just before dawn on a bitter morning. Michal went outside and gathered a bunch of chopped wood. Her breath hung in white clouds as she carried the bundle into the house. Then she placed each piece carefully into the fireplace and lit the fire. Next she dropped several icicles into a cauldron she’d place over the flame to melt for coffee; she rubbed her hands above the burning wood. It was not much, but it gave her some warmth. The thick shawl she’d wrapped around her shoulders did little to shield her from the chill that seemed to seep through her skin and settle right inside of her. The water began to boil slowly. Avram was still asleep. The sun was just rising as she gazed out the window. It was going to be another crisp ice-blue day, bright and frigid. As she sat back in the rocking chair that Avram had purchased from Taavi’s shop, her mind began to drift. She held the wooden armrest and thought of Taavi’s strong hands as he carved the wood. When she’d caught him working intently, she’d found his face even more attractive. The serious expression he wore when he was creating a masterpiece was incredibly alluring. For a moment, she allowed herself to wonder what it might be like to lie beside him, the way that she and her husband had come to know each other. In spite of the cold, her face flushed. How could she ever consider such a thing? She shook her head. “It’s a sin to think of another man in that way,” she whispered softly to the fire. “And, besides, I am happy with Avram. I don’t know why I am even thinking of Taavi. Avram is a wonderful husband.”
Then she felt the earth tremble. In the distance came the sound of thunder. She rushed outside to see what was happening. Could it be an earthquake? She’d heard of such things, but had never experienced one. Once she was outside the door, the roar became deafening. Fear struck her heart like a lightning bolt. She ran back into the house and shook her husband awake.
“Avram … get up … come in here now. Something is happening.”
Avram sat up in bed. Then he heard the sound. It was upon them now. The air smelled of smoke. Avram ran outside the door of the ho
They heard a man’s voice come from down the street. The man cried out in panic, “COSSACKS!”
“Cossacks? Oh, dear God, help us, they are coming. Quick, Avram. Quick, hurry we must find a place to hide,” Michal said. It felt as if the horse’s hoofs were pounding inside her heart.
A shroud of white fell over Avram’s face. “Do you think it’s a pogrom?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know.” She couldn’t move for a moment; she was paralyzed with fear.
Then, outside her living room window, Michal saw her friends and neighbors running in all directions. Some of them had not even stopped to put on their coats. They were still in their night clothes. She heard a crash of glass shattering as the odor of smoke grew thicker. Her eyes burned and she began coughing. As soon as she could speak, she said: “Where should we go? What should we do?”
Avram shrugged. He had no answer.
She looked around the house. They had not prepared for this in any way. Why not, she thought? But Michal knew the answer. It was because the people of the small village where she lived believed that they would be overlooked by the pogroms, that God would protect them. They were good people, religious people who stayed away from trouble. And, yes, the people knew that the czar was battling against the communists, but they had little affiliation with either side. Still, it was no matter; the czar blamed the Jews for the communist takeover, and even as the Red Army was descending upon Russia, the White Army still took the time to hire their terrible mercenaries, the Cossacks, to take revenge upon the Jews. The White Russians would offer the Cossacks the opportunity to steal anything and everything that they could find in a Jewish village during a pogrom, with the guarantee that there would be no penalty from the police or the government. The Bolsheviks had promised to protect the Jews once they took over. However, they were not yet firmly in place and there was no government to speak of; the country was in chaos, and anything could happen. Michal scanned the little house she shared with Avram. Her eyes darted to every corner, but she knew that they had no place to hide. Before they could even discuss escape routes, a massive band of sword-wielding Cossacks on horseback was right outside of the house. The horses’ breath was thick and white in the icy air. One of the stallions reared up and rose on his back feet to a terrifying height. The invaders, with their long black coats and felt hats, could not be confused with any other group. These were the feared Cossacks. Cruel and barbaric. Even the word had sent tremors through Jewish communities for as long as Michal could remember. The Cossacks’ coats hung open to reveal loose tunics, loose pants, and colorful waistcoats. At their sides, some of them carried sabers, others long spears. Some had long hair that peeked from beneath their hats; others wore no hat but had shaved heads with a single ponytail rising from the center. Thick fur pelts hung about some of their necks, while others wore black felt capes over their coats. One of the Cossacks cried out into the crowds, red-faced with a loud fierce voice, “Christ killers, come and face your destiny. You are the reason that the communists have taken our beloved country!” Then the rest of the Cossacks joined him, “Christ killers.…” they screamed. “Come and get what you deserve.”
Michal's Destiny by Roberta Kagan / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes