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Mechaye Hametim

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Hadass receives many letters from Anshel in the New World, but she never opens any of them. Avigdor is a different story. Avigdor answers every letter the day he receives it, and each is an exercise in passionate scholarship. Avigdor practically yanks his bookshelves down pulling masechtas and teshuvos to his desk. Then he settles down, pen in hand. He starts mumble-shouting to himself as he writes and then crosses out what he writes. It is one of the most adorable things Hadass has ever seen. She likes to sit in a quiet corner of their parlor with one of Avigdor's shirts to mend and a cup of tea to watch him write. If he mumbles loud enough for her to hear, she'll argue with his citations.

After a year, Anshel stops addressing her letters to Hadass, and a month goes by where the only letters they receive are for Avigdor. The next month a letter comes to Hadass from a new correspondent in Philadelphia: Yentl Mendel. Hadass's heart races. Avigdor is in yeshiva; she is all alone. In a heartbeat she rips the envelope open, tearing it into a dozen pieces in her anxiety. Then she sits down in her quiet corner and reads the whole letter three times, stopping between each reading to check on the soup she is boiling on their stove.

Upon completing her third reading, she stands up and, neglecting the soup, goes to her bedroom. She has a bag of sewing equipment, needles and scraps of cloth and yarn. Avigdor never touches the bag. She wraps the letter in an ugly purple rag and stashes it at the bottom of the bag. Then she returns to the kitchen, her mind in turmoil. For the first time she considers writing to America. Something holds her back.

Over the next two months, she receives another three letters from Yentl. Avigdor continues to write to Anshel. The letters get more difficult for Avigdor to write, not emotionally but technically. She can see him needing to consult more and more mefarshim to write an answer. Once or twice, he fails to finish his response the day he receives Anshel's letter, for he needs to consult the Rav before answering. He tells her, on these occasions, that the Rav knew instantly that the shailos had not originated with him. With every letter he manages to answer, Avigdor grows wiser. He grows warmer, tenderer, kinder, too. The light of Torah illuminates his life, and Hadass's alongside it. Semikha becomes an inevitability, and suitors start to come to convince Reb Avigdor to grace their small Litvak town as Rebbe. Hadass prevails upon him to be patient. Better offers will come.

A year and a half into their marriage, Hadass's body gives her the news she's been waiting for. She waits a couple of days to tell Avigdor. She engages in furious consultations with her mother, who brings in other women for yet further consultations. They decide, with no justification Hadass can identify, that it's going to be a boy. The day before she tells her husband, she decides to tell Yentl, who was once her husband as well, in a fashion.

She pulls out a pen while Avigdor is closeted in a private tutorial with the Rav on Hilchos Niddah, and she sits in her quiet corner and writes. She does not cite Talmud, as her husband might. ["Did not Rabbi Akiva say 'blessed be the woman who gives birth to a great Talmud Chacham?'" "No, it was Rabbi Yochanan."] She writes plainly and her letter is not more than a few lines, informing Yentl that she anticipates, B’sha’a tova, celebrating the birth of a son in less than seven months. She goes out and mails the letter when she is purchasing the chicken for Shabbos dinner. She tells Avigdor the news the next day. He writes to let Anshel know.

Sarah Yentl is born eight months later, in the tiny shtetl of Lazdijai, where Avigdor is now the Rav. Hadass writes to her mother to tell her that her consultants were wrong, and to tell all the Vishkowers there is no need to come for bris milah. Her mother comes anyway, and doesn't leave until Hadass is returned to her husband's marital bed. Hadass is certain that this time her mother will not be fooled by a little spilled wine and some laughter, and is grateful that she does not need to go to these lengths this time.

Hadass is happy in Lazdijai, and Sarah Yentl keeps her constantly busy, but when she has a chance now, she writes letters to Yentl in Philadelphia. It is hard to say what they are to each other, now that they are not man and wife. She loved Anshel once, that much is certain, and then Anshel betrayed her. But she is not sure if Yentl has ever betrayed her, and so perhaps her love lives on. In one of their letters, Yentl calls it 'Übertragung', a German word that doesn't quite sing in Yiddish, borrowed from the writings of an Austrian Jew named Freud. It cheers Hadass immeasurably that there is a word for it. It cheers Hadass even more that Yentl has been able to shed, more and more, Anshel's shadow. In Philadelphia she has a job with the Jewish Publication Society. Her life, as ever, revolves around seforim, only now she can do it in a skirt. Hadass is happy in Lazdijai, and so is Sarah Yentl, but in time Avigdor seems less and less happy. The life of a Rabbi in a town like Lazdijai is not a demanding one. He declares chickens treif and tefillin pasul, as appropriate, but there is nobody there but Hadass for him to argue Talmud with. He is so desperate that he actually does it, closing the windows as Yentl once did, "Because I trust God will understand. I'm not so sure about the neighbors." She knows that back at Yeshiva, he would never have done that, and wonders what else has changed. Avigdor continues to write to Anshel. The letters grow longer and longer.

In time, Hadass knows, he will be able to teach his daughter, as Reb Mendel once taught Sarah Yentl's namesake, or Hadass will bear sons to take Sarah's place in Avigdor's study. But she doesn't know if he can hold on that long. She doesn't know if he can endure the solitude and loneliness of the mind that is the curse of the gifted Talmudist. In desperation, she admits her fears in a letter to Yentl. A month later [it takes that long for letters to reach them now], a novelty greets them: a letter from both Yentl and Anshel! It contains no Talmud. The envelope holds a pair of boat tickets from Riga to Philadelphia. Come, the letter says. Come.

They come. They pack up all of their things. It doesn't take long. Hadass worries that a four year old will struggle with the strains of travel, but her daughter is a born adventurer, built much better than Hadass is for the changes. A wagon carries them to Vilna, a train carries them to Riga. The boat takes three weeks to cross the Baltic and the Atlantic.

For the first time, in a New World, Hadass sets eyes on Yentl. Hadass almost doesn't recognize her, with hair below her shoulders and a lovely brown dress. Yentl wraps her arms around Hadass's shoulders and pulls her body against hers. Hadass feels a warmth that leaves her wondering things she cannot put into words.

"There is a blessing in the Talmud for greeting old friends," Yentl says, loud enough for Avigdor to hear, though she does not relinquish her hold on Hadass. "Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi said if one sees a friend after an interval of twelve months, they say 'Blessed is the Lord, who raises the dead.'"

Avigdor and Hadass say amen. Sarah Yentl giggles shyly.

"Not according to the Vilna Gaon, Yentl," Avigdor says, and the two of them are off, matching source for source. Hadass instinctively closes off, letting them play their game together, except she realizes that they keep pausing as if waiting for her input. Halevai, America really is a New World, she thinks, and then she tells them her opinion of Rabbi Joshua's blessing.