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Authors: Abbi Sherman Schaefer

The Dressmaker's Son

BOOK: The Dressmaker's Son
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A Novel


Abbi Sherman Schaefer


To Julius and

Without whom there would be no novel


To my husband and
children who

Always believed I
could do this









“Please, Mama,”
Rebekah pleaded once her groom, Michael, had left after signing the
a marriage contract by which they would both abide, “Don’t make me do this.”          

“He is a fine man,
Rebekah,” Rose answered. “He will provide well for you with his cobbler shop.”

“But I have no
feelings for him. The thought of his touching me is sickening.”
            “Rebekah, you must pull yourself together.  If you give it a
chance, you will grow to love him.”

            “I won’t, Mama. You
said yourself that you were already in love with Papa when you married him.”
Turning to her sister, Rachael, she added, “And you fell in love with Jacob the
first time you met him. Help me, Rachael. Don’t let mama make me do this. I beg

            Rachael approached
Rebekah. “You look beautiful, Rebekah. The match has been made. You need to
make the best of this.  Give Michael a chance. You know I will always be here
for you.”

            Rebekah picked up her
veil from a chair in the corner and walked over to the mirror. “This is wrong,”
she said pulling one layer of the veil over her face. “It’s like a death

            “Stop, Rebekah,” Rose

            Rebekah knew by the
tone of her voice that the discussion was over.

            There was a slight
knock on the door as it opened. “Ah, Rebekah, you are a most beautiful bride,”
her father, Samuel, said. “They are ready for you now. Come take my arm.”

            Rebekah started to say
something, but thought better. “Yes, Papa,” she answered and put her arm
through his.

She made an
exquisite bride with her jet black hair pulled tight in a bun with tendrils
falling around her face and onto her slender neck. Behind the veil her almost
turquoise eyes lacked luster and her skin was pale. Her wedding dress, which
she had made herself, was simple yet elegant and though loose fitting revealed
her shapely figure.

Michael’s face lit
up in awe as she and her father approached. He was an average looking man with
dark brown eyes, a well- groomed beard, and thick dark brown hair. At almost
six foot two, he had a lean body. When he smiled, he revealed uneven, yellowing
teeth. As he walked forward to take Rebekah’s hand, he could hardly believe he
was marrying this breathtakingly beautiful woman.

Samuel lifted the
veil slightly and kissed Rebekah gently on her damp cheek. “I wish you a long
life of health, happiness and babies,” he said softly as he released her tight
grip on his arm and handed her to Michael. But he feared in his heart it was
not meant to be.  He had tried to talk his wife Rose out of the match, but she
would not have it. Now it was in God’s hands and he prayed for his daughter’s

When the wedding
reception came to a close, Rebekah and Michael went to the
Rebekah bathed traditionally in the holy water. Then they slept together and
passed the sheets to those outside the door waiting to see that there was blood
and Rebekah was a virgin.

Not only was their
love-making painful, but it also brought no response from Rebekah. “Why, God?”
she asked silently as she walked with Michael to her new home. “Why must I be
destined to a loveless life?”


(October 1908)


Rachael held the
whimpering child to her breast. “Don’t cry,” she whispered, touching her lips
to his forehead where she felt his fever raging.  “Please don’t cry, Levi.” 
Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the berth, she rocked back and forth
trying to get him to sleep.  Her long dark hair hung loose, almost covering
Levi’s face. 

Living conditions
in steerage were deplorable.  Often referred to as the bowels of the ship, this
particular large compartment with over three hundred passengers had rows and
rows of two-tiered berths.  Passengers had to keep everything they owned except
their baggage in their berths.  Eating utensils, clothing, towels, toilet
necessities and personal belongings crowded the coveted thirty cubic feet
allowed each passenger.  The ventilation was almost non-existent, and the wood
floors, reeking foul odors, added to the stench from lack of washing facilities
and sea-sickness.  There was no privacy.

            Feeling over the iron
rail to her right, she knew that Jacob was not there.  She pushed on the berth
above.  “Solomon,” she said. “Levi is burning up.  Get me some water so I can
rub him down.”

Solomon jumped out
of his berth and was instantly kneeling by Rachael.  In the darkness he could
hardly see anything but the outline of his mother’s form cradling Levi. 
“Mama,” he asked. “What do you think it is?”

            “I don’t know.  His
fever keeps getting higher and he won’t stop crying.”

            “Don’t cry, Levi,” he
said stroking his damp feverish body. “Sollie’s going to get you a surprise.” 
Levi stopped crying for a few seconds, looked into Solomon’s eyes, and offered
a brief smile.  But he continued to whimper.  As the youngest of the five
children, Levi had really crept into his heart.  He hugged Rachael.  “Try to
keep him quiet, Mama.  I’ll be right back.”

            Rachael was always
amazed at Solomon.  At twelve, he was mature beyond his years.  He had her dark
hair and dark blue eyes, but the shape of his face was chiseled like Jacob’s.  And
Rachael still couldn’t figure out where he got his muscular build and height. 
Already all the girls in the village had been staring at him.  During the
voyage he had been working in the kitchen and often brought extra food to the
family at the end of his very long days.  Dependable and caring, he could
always be counted on to help with the other four children: Miriam, ten; Joshua,
eight; Leah, six; and Levi, not quite two.

            Nobody could really
have prepared them for the horror of this trip, but Rachael knew that getting
their family to safety in America would be worth it.

 While waiting for
Solomon to return, she thought about how her sister, Rebekah, had reacted to
their leaving.  The meeting they had with her before leaving Yelizavetgrad had
been awful. When she and Jacob had gone to Rebekah’s to say good-bye, Rebekah
had grabbed Jacob sobbing.  “How can you do this to me?  How can you take my
family away to America?  What will I do?  I have nothing.  No children and now
no family.” 

Jacob tried to
calm her down.  “Mama is here,” he said. “And Michael and his family are here.”

“But not Rachael!
And not my nieces and nephews.  You don’t understand.  I’ll be so lonely.”

Rachael had
stepped in.  “Jacob is going to bring you, Michael and Mama to America as soon
as we can,” she promised. “Please, Rebekah, you need to be strong for Mama.”

When they left,
Rebekah’s parting words were, “Don’t forget your promise, Jacob.  Bring us to
America as soon as you can.”













































As Levi’s fever
raged, Rachael waited for Solomon to return with water.  He had been a godsend
on this difficult trip to America.

She remembered the
scare he had given her in Amsterdam.  After making the trek from Yelizavetgrad,
the family was finally getting ready to board the
for America,
and Solomon was nowhere to be found.  He had disappeared the night before when
disembarking one train to board another for the final leg of the trip to
Amsterdam.  As they stood waiting to board the ship, Rachael was beside
herself.  “I’m not leaving without him,” she had told Jacob.  Jacob did not
share her decision.

            “He’s a man, Rachael,”
he responded. “He’ll be okay.  We can’t sacrifice the entire family for one. 
If he isn’t here by sailing, we must go on.”

            “A man at twelve,” she
scoffed. “Jacob, he is just a boy. He’s not even become Bar Mitzvah yet.”

Jacob smiled. “He
will know what to do.  I gave him his ticket to carry with him.  He will find
someone to help him. Don’t worry, Rachael, Sollie will have his Bar Mitzvah in

            Just then Solomon
appeared out of nowhere.  Out of breath from running, he hugged Rachael. 
“Mama,” he panted, “What happened to all of you?”

            “All of us?” Rachael
yelled, wiping the tears of relief from her eyes.  “Where have you been?”

            “I couldn’t figure out
what happened to everybody,” he answered.  “I went back on the train to get
Miriam’s book and when I got back off, you were all gone.  A nice gentleman
told me what train to take to get here.  I went to the ticket counter, and the ticket
agent told me where to go to get the
 He said I might be too
late. Thank goodness you weren’t on board yet.   I was worried the ship had
left without me.”

            “What would you have
done if it had?” Jacob asked.

            “Well, Papa, I had the
ticket you gave me, so I would have found out what to do to get on another

            Jacob gave Rachael a
knowing nod.

            “So where’s my
book?" Miriam demanded with a grin.

            Solomon pulled a book
out from under his jacket.  “I’d better see you reading this,” he chided.

            Rachael smiled as she
leaned back with Levi against the life preserver that served as a pillow.  She
knew Solomon would be back soon with the water.  He was just like Jacob. 
Letting her mind drift, she thought about Jacob and how they had met. 

At that time Jacob
was just a peddler.  He had traveled from Zlatapol, his home town, on his horse
and wagon selling piece goods and sewing notions.  A friend had told him about Rachael’s
parents’ delicatessen where they had take-out meals as well as some small
tables.  He had also told him about their beautiful daughter, Rebekah.

            Rachael was behind the
counter when Jacob entered.  The delicatessen was small with five or six tables
to the left and a display case with salads and other dishes to the right.  Behind
the counter was a door which led to the kitchen.  The combination of smells in
the room already had his mouth watering.  He could detect pickles, blintzes,
and a pungent smell that might have been beet borscht.  “I hear you have really
good food for hungry travelers,” he said smiling at her. “And you are looking
at one hungry traveler.”

            His smile was
disarming.  “We have good food for everyone,” she answered pleasantly, taking
the time to study this strange man.  About five-foot-ten, his stance revealed a
confidence not present in most of the men Rachael had met before.  This made
him appear taller than he really was.  She figured he was about twenty,
although his hairline was already starting to recede.  His chin was strong and
his cheekbones angular, but his dark brown eyes were soft and kind.  It was his
voice, though, that commanded her attention.  It had an excitement to it that
made what he said sound adventurous and important.

            “Where did you hear
about our food?” she asked, peering directly into his eyes.

            “Oh, everyone in
Zlatapol is talking about it,” Jacob replied in mock seriousness.

            “I’m not surprised,”
she shot back.  “Everything from our potato soup to our blintzes is exquisite.”

            Jacob laughed.  His
friend Benjamin had been right.  This was a beautiful woman.  She was most
petite and looked to be about eighteen or nineteen.  Her flawless skin was very
fair, a striking contrast to her almost black hair which she wore pulled back
in a knot of some type, except for the strands that seemed to be escaping as
they fell carelessly around her face.  Immediately he imagined what she would
look like with it let free.  He realized he was staring as his eyes met hers,
which were a deep blue and seemed to be looking straight through him.  As he
searched for his voice, a woman suddenly came through the door to the kitchen.

            “Rachael, you’re
getting this man something to eat?” she prompted.  He knew at once it was her
mother.  She had the same petite build and features.  Her salt-and-pepper hair
was piled loosely on top of her head with escaping strands like Rachael’s.  Her
eyes mirrored Rachael’s, although they were a paler shade. “Rachael,” he
thought to himself. “Benjamin must have gotten the name wrong.”

Jacob introduced
himself and sent regards from Benjamin who had been there several months
earlier and knew the family.  “We always enjoy his visits,” she told him. “I’m

Before long, he
had charmed them all and Rose had invited him to spend the night at their home
before traveling on. “Papa will be home soon, and after all,” she had said,
“Why should you stay at a boarding house among strangers?”

At dinner Jacob
learned that Rebekah was Rachael’s older sister who had married two years
earlier, and that Rachael was, indeed, eighteen.  Later, Rachael and Jacob
talked for hours.  He told her of his dreams and plans.  Rachael was amazed by
him.  It was as though nobody had told him what was happening to the Jews in
Russia. Certainly he saw the restrictions Jews faced living in the Pale, a
geographical region of Imperial Russia where Jews were allowed permanent
residency.  There were also cities within the Pale in which Jews could not
live.  Only a very limited number of Jews were allowed to reside outside the
Pale, so there was little hope of being able to leave there.  It was crowded
with many vendors all trying to earn the same living in a limited space. When Rachael
brought up the difficulties he would surely face, Jacob scoffed. “I am in
charge of my life,” he answered.  “It will be all that I want it to be.”  He
accented the word “I.” 

They were sitting
on the tiny porch of Rachael’s home. She felt an unbelievable physical
attraction to Jacob. He had a sensuality about him that left her almost
breathless.  Jacob obviously felt it too.

“I don’t mean to
be bold,” he said to Rachael, taking her hand in his, “but I have never met
anyone like you.  May I come back to see you again?”

“Yes,” Rachael
answered.  She already knew she wanted to marry him.

“Mama,” Solomon
whispered shaking her ever so slightly, and noticing the hint of a smile on her
lips as he drew her out of her reverie.  “Here’s the water.”

She sat up with
the baby.  Reaching under her skirt, she tore a piece of cloth from her
petticoat, dipped it in the cool water and started washing Levi’s face and
little body. “You are such a good boy, Sollie,” she told him.

He smiled in the
dark.  “Mama,” he said as she continued with her task, “I brought this apple
for you and Levi.  It will help keep you strong.” Rachael reached out and took
the apple.  Twisting it in half, the juice dripping from her hands, she handed
one piece back to Solomon.  “You have half, Solomon,” she said. “You need
strength, too.  Now go back to bed.  It will be morning soon.  I have a feeling
we are almost to America.  There will be a lot to do.”

“Don’t worry,
Mama. Joshua and I will help take care of everyone,” he said, bending down to
kiss Rachael’s cheek.

“I’m sure you
will,” she responded, kissing him on the forehead.

He kissed his
mother again and hoisted himself up to his berth.  She could hear his even
breathing in minutes.  With Levi now asleep next to her, she finally drifted
back to sleep only to be awakened by the nightmares of the last year in

In 1881, the Jews
were blamed for the assassination of Czar Alexander II, bringing about more
anti-Semitism and the first pogrom in Yelizavetgrad.  This was an attack by
bands of hooligans, plied with alcohol and anti-Semitic indoctrination by
government officials, who went through the town looting and burning stores and
homes, killing Jews, and raping women.  Often Cossacks were joined by demented
soldiers and criminals.  When they were done, they merely rode on to the next
Jewish settlement.

These pogroms
continued intermittently at first, and then increased in frequency through the
early 1900s.  Rachael remembered the thunderous noise of horses as the riders
entered Yelizavetgrad, as they had many years before.  But this was the first
time in her young life she had experienced such terror.

When the ruckus
started, she had been hiding above the store with her sister, Rebekah, waiting
for Jacob to come with the boys who were just getting out of school.  Suddenly
she remembered her mother’s Bible.  Her mother had given it to her when she and
Jacob became engaged. “Rachael,” she had said, “This Bible was my mother’s. 
She carried it on her wedding day, and I carried it on mine.  Now you will
carry it when you marry Jacob.  Keep it with you always.  It will help you
through the trying times.  And, one day, if God wishes, you will give it to
your oldest daughter on her wedding day.”  As she made her way down the steps
and through the back room of the store, she thought, “Well there couldn’t be
any more trying day than this, and if I don’t get that Bible, those mad men may
find it and destroy it.  Then what would Miriam carry with her when she gets

BOOK: The Dressmaker's Son
11.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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