50 / 365 – Fridays

FRED VANEK

We drew our blinds on Friday nights. For the kids, for young people, it’s the end of school for the week, a lot of people who even have to work on Friday they go out. We shut ourselves in, even during the height of summer when the air was thick and still. The kids were playing down in the street, calling up to me, but we drew ourselves in. Blinds and curtains closed, and then in the dark, lighting candles. My father stayed there with us, for the prayers, for the meal, and then he might go out. We did not go out, we did not celebrate with anyone else. I don’t know if there were any other Jews in my little town. If there were, they kept it hidden. What I know of it, I only know from my mother, reading, saying prayers over dinner on Friday nights.

When I was in my teens, when I thought I was a man already though I was nothing like a man, I wanted to go out with my father. I would ask him, on Friday afternoon, Where do you go? Can I come with you? He never spoke, just shook his head. Especially when it was hot outside and we were all shut up in the house, sometimes after he left I would say cruel things to my mother. She put up with a lot from me, and was always kind. The hell she saw in her life, you can’t imagine, and she kept her kindness, always. She would tell me quietly not to raise my voice. She was always quiet for the sabbath, speaking in kind, hushed tones. I think I carried that with me. The idea that Sunday was a day for quiet, for kindness.

When my father went out we would curl up together in a big chair we had, the one large chair in the house. Parents did not do that with their children in those days, curl up like that, and it was only on sabbath nights, after my father had gone out. She would tell me stories. When I was young they were more like folk tales. One was about the golem in Prague. There was a ghetto in Prague where all the Jews lived, where they had to live, where they had lived for hundreds of years, and from time to time people in Prague would come, accuse them of crazy things, attack them, even kill some of them. Like modern times, someone always had it in for the Jews. There was a rabbi there who was a great protector of his people. People were coming into the ghetto, smashing shops, killing some of his people. He prayed to God for protection. Somehow God sent him the knowledge, the secret for life. He practiced kabbalah, I think it was called, a kind of magic that the Jews had then. And he went to river and fashioned a figure of a man out of the clay there. A tall man with huge arms and legs like tree stumps. He built it up on the riverbank, and then he did the spell from the kabbalah and the figure came to life. He led it back to the ghetto and hid it in the synagogue, up in the attic. His secret weapon up in the attic And when the people of Prague attacked, he let it out and it beat them back, scared them to death. Their swords, their fire, didn’t faze it a bit, and it was stronger than anyone. It scared the people of Prague and they stayed out of the ghetto after that.

But, my mother always said, that life that the rabbi had put into the golem, was not something that could be controlled. And when it was powerful, like that powerful golem, it could not be controlled. Soon the golem had turned on the Jews, too, smashing their shops, attacking people. Some say the rabbi tricked it into going back up into the attic of the synagogue, where he locked it up. When I was in Prague I heard stories that it was still locked up there, that the stairs to the attic had been taken out and the attic door sealed over so that the golem could not get out. My mother used to smile when she told that part. She said it was just the story they told to keep the people of Prague from attacking the ghetto. She said what had really happened was that the rabbi had taken the golem back down to the river, and he had repeated the magic in reverse, and the golem had become clay again. Because he had realized that the power he had summoned into that clay, even though it had protected the Jews in the ghetto in that time, was a power which would destroy them from within. They had to give that power back. They would have to learn to survive without power. My mother said she tried to survive by kindness, by having a good family, even though it was just the three of us, being kind to our neighbors. She was well-liked, my mother, at least while things were good.

I hear other stories, from my grandmother, my father’s mother, stories that all of the other children knew. But I also knew this golem story was different, that it marked me in a way as different. Even though I went to school with the others, even when I went away to Prague to school, even when the Germans came and my father tried to make me appear as normal and German as possible, going to work in that truck repair shop in Teplice, I still always knew I was different because I carried that story around with me.

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