“Who is it before whom you become pure?
And who is it that purifies you?”
—Mishnah Yoma 8:
This is how I imagine the death of Yahakow Lejb Slomianski—my great-grandfather—in Yashinovka, Poland, on Tuesday, October 3, 1944, at 11:47 p.m.
He is alone in the forest. The sun is setting on a frigid evening. At 59, Yahakow Lejb is still tall, although he is losing height. His broad shoulders no longer project strength. His arthritis has become unbearable. His hands are full of calluses from endless hours at the tannery, fleshing skin, drenching, and pickling it. He remains surprised by the degree to which he misses the “odoriferous trade,” as his wife, Feige, called it. That is why the family always lived in this godforsaken village, one in a constellation of 33 Podlasie shtetlach: to keep away the smell of Białystok, the leather marketplace, which is where Yahakow Lejb and his sons would transport merchandise twice a month.
Yahakow Lejb catches his breath as he waits for nightfall. He is afraid for Menachem. He surely could have prevented the altercation they had a few hours ago. They had managed to live in peace for these many months, but now things are likely over. Before he left, Menachem said, quoting a line from the Talmud: “If one is seized by ravenous hunger, they feed him even unclean things until his eyes light up. And, as Rabbi Matia ben Harash said, if one has pain in one’s throat, they may drop medicine into his mouth on Shabbat, because it is a possibility of danger to human life.”
After shrieking—Yahakow Lejb was certain that Nazi soldiers or Christian peasants would hear them—Menachem departed in a tizzy. He is Yahakow Lejb’s fifth child and the town fool. He is considerably shorter than his father, and with his sweet flattened face in which his almond-shaped eyes slant forward and his small hands with their palmar crease, he reads voraciously, even in their captivity. Menachem knows the stories of disparate rabbis like Yohanan ben Zacchai, Judah ha-Nasi, Eliezer ben Hurcanus, and Gamaliel. Feige was convinced that Menachem was slated to be a Talmudic commentator, but the Yetzer Ha-ra, the evil inclination, changed course while he was still in his mother’s womb.
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