Out of the Flames

“Your name is Phyllis,” Miss K greeted me that September morning, my first day at school. Mama had reassured me that this was the public school’s kindergarten, so as far as I could make out, I was in the right place, but Miss K was awfully wrong. I am Lifsa, darling Lifseleh, named for Bubba Lifsa who died long ago in a faraway village. Bubba Lifsa was independent. She owned a shop and drove her cart to market regularly. In her home there was the family closet filled with precious gifts from grateful women whose confinements were soothed by her special powers. Bubba Lifsa could daven. She was the zuggener who whispered the prayers for the other women who sat close to her behind the curtain in shul.

Bubba Lifsa would know what to say to Miss K who knows my American name before I do. But I am afraid. Suddenly, and forever, I am split in two. “Jewish girls need American names,” Mama explains later, “and it’s better not to let it be known who we are, not right away.” The shul where the women looked to Bubba Lifsa for when to say ome-ayn had been burned to the ground. I could see the flames. Yes, Phyllis is better.

Time passes. Phyllis has a report card, a diploma, a job, a driver’s license. She has a credit card. She votes. Lifsa stays home. She doesn’t go out.

Again, time passes. It is Simchat Torah in the new Temple. Rabbi invites the women to approach the bimab. I am the first to receive an aliyah. “Ta-a-mod Lifsa bat Isser v’Zissel,'” the rabbi intones. “Let Lifsa, the daughter of Isser and Zissel, arise and give honor to the Torah.”

I whisper to Bubba Lifsa: “Here we are, together at last, our name called loudly to our Torah. What have you to say now?”