“A simple procedure,” said the surgeon, tapping his pipe against the onyx ashtray. “Entirely routine.” He unscrewed the pipe, shaking out its charred contents. “What does it involve?” The young woman uncrossed and recrossed her legs. Dr. Simpson refilled his pipe as he talked. “When you fell on the ice, you injured the blood vessels in your knee and they leaked onto the joint. It’s called hemarthrosis.
“What we do,” he continued between puffs, “is to remove the blood that leaked.” He rose and pointed to skeletal gray impressions on black x-rays hanging on a luminous screen.
As he expounded on the technical details of the projected surgery, Esther found his voice fading in and out of her consciousness.
Gray bones. Gray bones, shoveled into the gaping jaws of an insatiable machine, spit into the yawning abyss of a mass grave. Shouts. Juden, Raus! Swastikas. Knives. Blood. The smoke of crematoria rising heavenward in swirls of gray and black. ” . . . the area where the femur abuts on the cartilage . . .”
“Yes, yes, I see,” Esther murmured at appropriate intervals.
“. . . so the fluid will be drained. And then, my dear, you shall be as good as new!”
“Thank you doctor.” Esther reminded her mouth to smile. “You’ve explained it all very clearly.”
“We should operate as soon as possible. Why should you suffer longer than necessary?” He pushed a button on his desk phone and picked up the receiver. “Please schedule Mrs. Shaya for a room up on Orthopedic some time next week. Yes, that’ll be fine. One week from today.”
Esther’s tongue darted over her lips. “What time should I be there?”
“You’ll get all that information in the mail.” He began to empty his pipe again. “Usually patients check in the day before surgery to have a variety of tests, and to meet the anesthesiologist.”
Esther clutched her bag. “The what?”
“The anesthesiologist. We can’t give you anesthetic without an anesthesiologist, you know. He’ll determine which is the best painkiller—which will make the surgery the more bearable.”
“What if l don’t want it?”
He sputtered into his pipe. “Well, ultimately the decision is yours, of course. I suppose you could grit your teeth and bear it. Though why anyone in her right mind would want to do such a thing is beyond me.”
Esther groped for a plausible answer. The doctor’s paternalism was alluring. threatening to smother her in painlessness and comfort.
“No anesthetic,” she said. Just like that. No explanation, no justifications.
The doctor shrugged. “Of course that’s your decision. But I must tell you that all my years of clinical experience speak against it. You know, I was operating on legs before you were even a dream in your parents’ minds!”
The resentment roiled and bounced around in Esther’s stomach. What did he know about nightmares in her parents’ minds?
The doctor swivelled his chair away from the desk. “You’re a very stubborn young lady. Go home and talk this over with your husband.”
Talk it over with your husband. Perfectly sensible advice from a sensible man. But impossible. Pain was her private solace, crouching in her heart, relinquished and shared with no one. Not even Joseph, with whom she shared all else.
Now, leaving the elevator and buttoning her coat, she saw Joseph’s blue car. In it they had dated, had floated endearments during their courtship, had been transported from their wedding. Trust Joseph to bring it as close as possible, to spare her the pain of walking.
Let me help you.” Joseph whisked out of the car, kissed her and took her arm, guiding her into the front seat. “What did the doctor say?”
She repeated it, minus clinical details, minus anesthetic.
“Surgery!” Joseph’s large, warm hand closed over hers. “You poor darling. I’ll take care of you.”
This was unbearable. She turned away, looking out of the window. Damp grayness hung over the city. People pulled coats tighter, scurrying toward their destinations. A man scuttled by, one hand holding his hat, the other struggling with a bulky portfolio. The car passed carriages carrying swaddled infants, wild-haired old women with torn skirts and blue fingernails picking through garbage cans, sore-covered men huddled in doorways, last night’s moldy bread still clutched in frozen fingers. The city in wintertime.
Esther shivered and closed her eyes. Always, she had always enjoyed this life of luxury and ease. Her childhood room, coordinated pink wallpaper, carpet, and curtains, chosen by her mother. Soft slippers, generous parents— parents who denied her nothing, made no demands, imposed no restrictions.
Not like others, she. Not like Beth Nimstead, who lost her mother when she was ten. Or Rina Laufers, whose father was in the hospital, dying of cancer. Or her own parents, the weight of their love a secret burden—who had suffered; they had lived real lives. But she—she was wrapped in the artificial cocoon of security and comfort. Loathsome, despicable, a worm treated like a butterfly.
This surgery, the knife unblunted, would be her opportunity. To live up to her parents’ standard, to take her place among the heroes and martyrs of the concentration camps, among the homeless people of the city.
Were they still alive, her parents would be proud of her. True, they never talked about that dark world to her. Their memories remained locked behind gentle hands, warm embraces, tormented eyes. The dam of silence contained no chink for blocked words to trickle through. No way to say, “Tell me who you really are. The dreams that died in Auschwitz and those that were born. The smell of blood, the sound of choking children. Tell me how you go to bed at night, and how you get up in the morning.” No, those words would have been blasphemy, like uttering the unutterable Name of God. Only a High Priest could take such license and penetrate her parents’ Holy of Holies. She, their daughter, was unworthy.
There were words elsewhere, reams, rivers, floods—shelf after library shelf of books, their pages screaming out their bloody information. Words that only made the silence louder.
They pulled up to the house. “Esther, are you okay? You look awfully pale.” Then, more softly, “Are you in a lot of pain?”
Pain? Compared to the whips and knives that flashed and cut through her parents’ haunted lives? She forced a smile. “Just tired.” ‘
Well, you go right to bed. I’ll make you a hot tea.” Joseph was hissing about in the kitchen. He didn’t understand that he was twisting a knife as painful as the surgeon’s. “Why don’t you do something relaxing?” He produced the Times and spread its gray expanse across the kitchen table. Joseph, like an eager child, bringing a present. Obligingly—to humor the child—Esther looked down at the paper. A 70-year-old woman stabbed in her apartment. Pot-bellied skeletal children with wounded eyes staring at her out of drought-ridden Africa. Relax?
But then—but then she remembered. Next week. Next week she, too would join the Community of Suffering, the secret world of torment. No more would she carry the guilt and shame of other people’s suffering. Next week the knife would cut her as well.
And then—amazingly, wondrously— she did relax. For the first time, that Friday night, Esther enjoyed her soup without seeing before her eyes the line of emaciated children, their empty bowls dangling from between bony fingers, their eyes a reproach, awaiting their ladleful of gruel. She allowed the sweet softness of the Sabbath bread to linger on her palate without reminding herself of the homeless man’s moldy crusts. She savored Joseph’s touch, no screaming widows, their young husbands wrenched from their sides and thrown into the pyre, appearing to dislodge her from her marriage bed. There was dread, yes; but also peace.
Peace. As she packed her modest valise. (Her parents, too, must have thrown together a few necessities before boarding the train, a hideous parody of civilized departure.) Peace, as the car traveled past the slushy specimens of wretched humanity sprawled across the sidewalk. Peace, as she passed stretchers with the toothless and malodorous, threaded with bags and tubes of saline nutrition, muttering and groaning through hushed hospital hallways. Peace, through endless forms, dotted lines, numbers and signatures. The offering, signing herself for sacrifice.
The bed with stiff white sheets. Glittering needles, crystal vials eagerly sucking her blood. Joseph, apologies flowing from him like the blood from her veins, finally leaving for his office. The anesthesiologist, with glasses and a mirthless grin, visiting her at Dr. Simpson’s behest.
“Yes, I know. Dr. Simpson said you don’t want anesthetic.” He looked at her as if she had a new and dangerous disease. “But you may change your mind. Pain is not pleasure, you know. Ha ha.” He drew up a chair to the white bed.
His voice droned on. Dosages. Measured packets of ease and betrayal. Esther closed her eyes. Tomorrow, she promised the bony faces of her enshrouded parents, tomorrow I will be worthy.
Esther’s knee was washed and disinfected, the knives honed and arranged, the doctor soaped and scrubbed. White-coated and masked, the tobacco odor mingling even through his mask with the smell of soap and disinfectant, he bent over her. He clucked his tongue and made a sound that could have been a chuckle or a reproof.
“You certainly are a stubborn young lady. But the anesthesiologist is standing by in case you change your mind.”
Esther waved her hand and the nurse wheeled over a table of evil looking instruments laid out on a blue cloth. (“And they came to the place of which God had spoken, and Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand took the knife . . .”)
Dr. Simpson pointed to the knife decked table. “Scalpel.” (“And the angel of God called unto him from heaven and said: Abraham., Abraham touch not the lad, nor harm him, for now I know that thou fearest God and did not withhold thine only son from Me . . .”)
Esther waited. For the angel. But no. No angel, as no angel had come forth to intervene and stay the hands of the Nazis who slaughtered six million offerings. Esther squeezed her eyes shut; then it happened.
Red, blinding pain broke over her in waves. The surgeon was wearing a swastika on his forehead, right between the eyes, where Jewish men don their phylacteries. His kindly, solicitous countenance a leering mask, executioner torturing his victim.
The walls of her consciousness stretched in and out with each searing pulse. She gripped the table. Ovens. Gas showers. Whips. Barbed wire. Knives. Flames. All the phrases and descriptions from a thousand library shelves came bubbling over her now in a cascade of boiling lava. Images fought for space. Black smoke. Gray sky. Red pain. Flames consuming her knee, her body, her soul.
The surgeon’s voice (“sutures . . . scissors . . .”) stoking the fire as she struggled against the cotton wool mist threatening to suffocate her. To fain was to submit, to betray her parents, the six million, the homeless.
The pain diminished somewhat. She was aware of being bandaged now, expertly and efficiently. Someone lifted her sweat-drenched body onto the stretcher. So it was over, then, the gray mist rose before her eyes, and this time she allowed herself to slide gratefully into it.
Esther struggled to open her eyes, aware of hot throbbing in her knee and a familiar warm hand grasping hers. So it really was over. She had done it. (“And an angel of God called to Abraham a second time from heaven saying. Because thou hast done this and not withheld thine only son from Me, I will unconditionally bless thee and thy seed . . . and then all the nations of the world shall be blessed.”)
Esther closed her eyes and slept. Sleep, once the black quicksand of comfort, now the sweet companion of a clear conscience, the entitlement of a hero returned from battle. She had endured and triumphed.
But as she closed her eyes, an uneasiness was growing, thrashing, more urgent than die arrows of pain shooting through her knee. It nagged and pulsed above her right eye, through sleep and into the wakefulness brought on by Joseph, brimming with coffee and good cheer, who had come to take her home.
The car moved through the gray city streets. Panic mounted. Same streets. Same homeless ladies bent over trash cans, muttering to themselves, while the same homeless men, wrapped in plastic bags, still huddled in doorways.
Then she knew. She had hoped, that God would keep His promise. That her sacrifice would bring blessing to others. Her pain, she had thought, could not leave the world unchanged. But the promise was a lie. Only her world inside had changed. The world outside had remained the same. And now she knew why her parents had chosen silence.
Batya Swift Yasgur is a mother and freelance writer/editor living in New Jersey.
A Psalm and A Song
by Susan Shnur
Ten Psalms: The Complete Hasidic Remedy
In the late 18th century, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav designated ten psalms is as having particular power to bring healing. As a unit, he called these ten “The Complete Remedy” (Tikkun Haklali). Here is a sketch of each psalm, as outlined by Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub in Healing of Soul, Healing of Body: Spiritual Leaders Unfold the Strength & Solace in Psalms, which he edited with the Jewish Healing Center in 1994 (reprinted with permission from Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock VT):
1. Psalm 16 starts with a powerful expression of trust and faith in God and gratitude for God’s goodness. The psalmist feels the nearness of the Divine Presence and confidence in Divine Protection.
2. Psalm 32 urges us to look deep into ourselves, to examine where and how we have distanced ourselves from God and to return to God as the Source of true life and joy.
3. Psalm 41 speaks explicitly about sickness, vividly portraying the torment and suffering endured by so many, expressing thanks to God for the possibility of healing, and stressing the need for caregivers to be sensitive, understanding and supportive.
4. Psalm 42 beautifully depicts the yearning for God “as a heart thirsts for springs of water,” describing the pain and suffering of both the individual and the nation in exile while affirming the hope of ultimate deliverance.
5. Psalm 59 is a cry from the heart of God to deliver us from the forces that oppress us and cast us down, echoing David’s plea for rescue from Saul’s soldiers and his thanksgiving upon receiving Divine refuge and support.
6. Psalm 77 is an important turning point in this collection beginning with an expression of anguish and abandonment, the pain and persecution of a long bitter exile, but moving into an affirmation of faith that God is ever-present and compassionate, despite appearances to the contrary.
7. Psalm 90 offers a profound comment on human destiny, contrasting human frailty and the brevity of human life with God’s eternity and omnipotence, asking God for wisdom, joy, security, support, and compassion.
8. Psalm 105, after calls to sing and praise, traces the national history of the Jewish people from the covenant with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs through the Exodus from Egypt, which serves as a prototype of Redemption.
9. Psalm 137 takes us back to the acute pain of exile, weaving in nine verses a tapestry of grief, despair, memory, affirmation, and anger . . . which may be viewed as the proverbial darkness that comes before the light.
10. The Ten Psalms conclude with Psalm 150, a paean and musical symphony of praises.
The Healing Voice
Psalm 105 enjoins people who are suffering to do something strange: “Sing! Sing to God! Compose songs and play instruments.” Here are Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s musings:
In our sophistication, we think of singing as an art form; but the Torah teaches that to sing is a blessing. In terms of the spirit, singing is on a higher level than speaking. . . . Through song we learn to better endure our hardships. When life is not a song, sing! . . . Singing lifts the heart.
Even if all we do is chant “Oy Vay,” over and over, to a time we improvise— Shiru lo, “Sing to God.” Even a melancholy song somehow takes us out of ourselves and gives expression to our inner being. Sometimes I break out in a niggun— a melody that uses sounds shaped only by my emotions. It articulates a groan that forces its way out of my interior; sometimes, it expresses an indescribable joy inside me that’s in search of an audience.
Sometimes we sing a familiar niggun with friends with whom we sway in oneness. It crystallizes our common despair, and the sadness gets dissipated in fellowship.
The Mi-Shebeyrach prayer, asking for healing, set to music by Debbie Friedman has become for many listeners—and singers-forth—the way to appreciate both the prayer and the opportunity for the relief that comes from breathing deeply and singing aloud. Debbie Friedman”s albums are available in most Judaica stores or call Sounds Write Productions, Inc. at (800) 9-SOUND-9.