Other Voices, Chicago, IL, 2001.
At the train station in Connecticut, she takes a taxi to her parent's house, takes off her crucifix and puts it in her purse. Her brother's car is parked in the street and when she rings the bell her mother comes to the door and embraces her, leaving her brother Bernie at the dining room table with his wife and a lanky man who must be her father's cousin. Prowling the Net for genealogies, Bernie discovered him, the only one of her father's cohort to survive Hitler. The cousins have never met and now Saul has come from Paris to see her father before it is too late.
"Darling, let me introduce you," her mother leads her toward the table where she sees tea served in the Russian manner, in glasses, with lemon, jam and cubes of sugar. She shakes hands with this fine-boned man who has flax-blue eyes like her own, wheels her bag into her childhood room, washes, and joins them. Her mother, motioning her to the chair on her right, urges Saul to continue, "I love these Yiddishe meises."
Ruth's mother offers Saul poppyseed cake. "Just a crumb," he takes a slice from the gold rimmed plate, and the others follow suit though Bernie's wife gives him a warning glance. Ruth abstains. It is a fast day in Lent. Soon, Saul tells another story.
A community of poor Jews lived under the protection of a lord who used to extort whatever money they had to pay for - what else? - his wars and Crusades. One day, not satisfied, he said he would put the Jews to death. They begged. They pleaded. The lord said, No.
We are lost, the Jews told each other. Then one said, 'I have an idea. Let me talk with the lord.' Next morning, he went to the castle, 'Lord, if you let us live, I will teach your dog to speak Hebrew.' 'Hebrew! He can't speak at all.' 'I tell you, give us time and your dog will speak Hebrew. All the other lords will envy you.' 'How much time?' Saul strokes an imaginary beard, 'Let me see.' A phantom shtetl speaks in his sing-song, 'For a man to speak, takes two, three years. But a man,' weighing considerations, 'A man is more intelligent than a dog. Let us say...' stroking the phantom beard, 'Let's say three years.' The price clear, his voice grows firm, 'Three years, and your dog will speak Hebrew.' So the lord agreed to spare the Jews for three years.
Saul's voice modulates to the Jew telling the community. No fake wisdom now. Of course they are not satisfied. 'Woe! You will teach his dog to speak Hebrew! How will you do that? When he sees you have cheated him, he will kill us all.' 'Listen,' Saul's hands open in a display of honesty as old as the rocking of prayer and, seated at the table thick with cups and cakes, they all become members of that shtetl - her mother, cheeks swollen with grieving, Bernie balding and heavy, his jewelled wife heavy herself, and Ruth, the youngest, the studious one. If she had not been born female, she would have seemed destined for the yeshive. Here in America, she is the one who reads. She reads goyish books and has goyish friends and has slipped out of her family's world. And Saul? He appears comfortable in the shetl he evokes. "Three years is a long time. Who knows what will happen? In three years, the dog may die." He stops. "The lord may die."
It seems he has finished. Ruth cannot resist adding the ending a colleague once told her about the horse of the Emperor Diocletian learning Latin, "The dog may speak Hebrew."
As Jews tell stories, the Jews are always poor. As gentiles tell stories, the Jews are always rich.