Author: Sedonia Jacobs
Series: Journey of Souls, Book 1
Genre: Historical; Spirituality; Judaica; Women’s Fiction; New Adult; Young Adult
Price: 3.99 USD
Length: Super novel
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Cover art: Kim Jacobs
In the Jewish tradition, The Book of Souls tells of souls who travel together through time in their quest toward perfection. Often what binds them together is love…
Nineteen year old Hannah lives in a shtetl outside Warsaw, waiting for the day her true love will come along. She bides her time, buried in a world of books, her passion in life. She has always felt like an outsider, especially since her one and only friend is a strange young religious man who used to trail her secretly, until a violent event brought out his heroic nature and their friendship grew. Solomon’s friendship and care help Hannah to come out of the bitterness she hides in to embrace the possibilities of life and love. For that reason, in her heart, Hannah adores Solomon and knows deep down he is the destiny her heart would have chosen. Yet because Solomon, a Torah scholar destined to be a great religious leader, has been promised in marriage to the Rebbe’s daughter she remains always in conflict, unable to reconcile the unconventional person she is with what her life should be, according to her family and society.
Set against the backdrop of the impending Holocaust, Hannah and Solomon’s friendship endures the harsh events of time, until one night, Hannah is forced to choose. She fails her heart and the darkness of Hitler’s nightmare falls over them. Can she redeem her failure to her heart and grow, keeping faith with the love she knows is truly what her heart wants? Is it too late? Or is the Book of Souls right and perhaps she will have another chance…
Part One: Shabbos
Poor Solomon! He has such crazy ideas about life and love. He actually believes that real love between a man and woman is possible. But from what I have seen, people are too busy fighting and abandoning each other, and treating each other like dreck for real love to exist. And anyway, it’s pretty ironic coming from Solomon who was abandoned as an infant by his own parents and was promised by his adoptive father at the age of fifteen to a girl he says he doesn’t love and seems determined not to. He says that she is not his besheret, his destiny, and that he knows this deep in his heart. Which always makes my stomach flutter inside because I know by the way he says it what he’s trying to tell me. But Solomon’s father gave his word, and Solomon sees that as an obligation he must keep to honor the father who saved his life.
And so he’s only proving my point, because the moment of his marriage marks the end of our friendship. Where’s the love in that? You would think that at the age of twenty—twenty and a half to be exact—that Solomon would realize his idealism is going to be beaten out of him in the near future.
As for me, who just turned nineteen today, I once believed as he did. Even now, I feel the last hopeful bits of it creeping around inside me, but even those are being scraped away. I can’t help it, because even though as I sit here on my bed, holding the beautiful prayer book Solomon just gave me for my birthday—he really is the most thoughtful person I’ve ever met—in my other hand is the latest letter from my father, Isidore Herzel, bearing his most recent explanation of why I will go yet another year without seeing him.
This year he and his friend David Rosen, with whom he immigrated to America, have parted ways and that he will have to look for a new place to live and, perhaps, a new job.
I had expected this. For two years now Papa’s letters have been filled with complaints about Mr. Rosen, about how he drinks, how manipulative he is, how he spends too much money, on and on. I daresay Papa sounds like a husband complaining about a bad wife. Personally, I never found Mr. Rosen to be as unpleasant as Papa says. Just the contrary, really. Mr. Rosen always seemed concerned about me and how my parents’ separation affected me. I always liked his ribald sense of humor, joking about people’s funny habits and bodily functions, treating me like a grownup entitled to hear such jokes. He also taught me some useful things, such as how to iron my dresses properly and how to clean a floor. Sometimes I’ve even felt that he taught me more useful things than my own parents did.
If anything, it’s Papa who does the very things he complains about and blames Mr. Rosen instead. But even so, it hurts that he doesn’t give up and come back home. If he’s going to be a failure, why can’t he do it here in Poland with me rather than all the way on the other side of the world? I tell you, Papa’s behavior gives me the chilling sense deep down that somehow all of his life has been an elaborate contrivance to avoid being with me.
I wish I could remember what I did to repulse him, but I can’t. I guess I just made him unhappy somehow. And so did Mama. Her housekeeping was always terrible, and I used to watch him grumble to himself as he snatched her discarded stockings off their bedroom floor or sponged her talcum powder off the bathroom vanity. Maybe it was just that I remind him of her. Except for my blonde hair, which I inherited from him, I mostly resemble Mama, with her short rounded features and resistance to tidiness. But he says he loves me and I must take him at his word, grateful that he should say so, especially after what I said to him the day he left.
I try to explain all this to Solomon, but he insists that it is my father’s faults which keep him away and not mine. He says if he had a daughter like me, he’d want to be with her all the time. But he doesn’t know me as well as Papa did. Solomon and I have been friends for only a year and a half, not enough time for him to see how horrible I really can be. He wasn’t there the day Papa left for America. He wasn’t standing with us in the front hall of our apartment in Warsaw when Papa told us he was leaving for the Golden Land.
What a day that was! I can only call it “the day I screamed and screamed.” It was the end of March 1934, a month before my fifteenth birthday. My parents had already been separated since I was nine, and Mama and I had moved in with my grandparents. When Bubby and Zayde passed away not long after, Mama and I were alone there. But at least Papa was still in the same city with me and I could take the bus to visit him every Shabbos. He shared an apartment with Mr. Rosen since he said to me, “Hannele, from now on, your mother and I won’t be living together anymore.” Those were his exact words. Burned into my memory for all time.
In the years since my parents’ divorce, when I spent time with him, Papa would speak from time to time about going to the Golden Land to try and make his fortune there since he had failed to do it here in Poland. He blames his lack of success on the fact that he is an overly generous person who seems to have a tendency to get himself involved with, as he puts it, “lowlife goniffs who always end by screwing me over.” The way he sees it, there are so many people in America that surely he would be able to find the right ones. During those talks, I never asked him if he would take me with him because I assumed he would even though he never actually said the words. Nor did he ever tell me he was actually in the process of getting his papers! He just came to the door that morning in a new crisp suit, his blond hair combed perfectly into place—,Papa is quite handsome and always turns female heads when he walks down the streets of Warsaw—and told me and Mama he was leaving.
Mama’s response had been simply to bury her face in her hands and turn away.
“Papa,” I said, “You didn’t give me time to pack. Give me a few minutes. I’ll be ready to go with you.” I started to turn when he stopped me.
“Hannah,” he said, “You’re not going with me.”
“I need to…get settled there first. Then I can send for you.”
Something in his tone of voice or in his eyes made me hysterical, as if deep inside I sensed I’d never see him again. I begged him to take me and he kept refusing, telling me he would be late if he didn’t leave right this second. How could have do this? I, began to scream. I had never screamed like that before in my life, but once his words had entered my consciousness, the reality of his leaving rushed in on me like a butcher’s knife to the neck of an unkosher chicken. I filled that apartment and the halls of the whole building with my bloodcurdling geshrays. I didn’t care who heard me or who in the outside world knew our business. All I knew was that Papa was slipping away from me and the only chance I had to keep him from going was to release the depths of my distress on him, the way God released the plagues onto Pharaoh’s people. I threw myself on him as if I could climb him, fistfuls of his nice woolen coat in my hands.
I must have been incredibly strong because Papa could not pry me off him and needed Mama to help. I felt her ineffectual tugs on my shoulders to get me off of him and utterly ignored her. I was half grabbing, half flailing at him and found myself screaming, “I hate you! I hate you! Don’t, Papa!”
In a sudden gust of resolve, he grasped me hard and wrenched me off him, holding me at arm’s length, staring at me like I was some kind of wild animal. His face looked painfully inflated, raw and red, a zigzag of veins in his temples. Strands of his blond hair hung in his eyes. His blue eyes flashed murderously. “How dare you, Hannah!” he said. “How dare you speak to me like that? Hate is the worst thing a person could feel!”
He released me like I was a poisonous creature and smoothed down his rumpled suit. I had knocked his hat to the floor in my outburst, and he bent to retrieve it, snapping it up like he did with Mama’s stockings, only worse, showing me how deeply I had hurt him with my curses. I cringed in my shame, still ignoring Mama who continued to squeeze my shoulders while rubbing them at the same time. Silently, I rejected her feeble attempt at protective comfort, one I knew I certainly didn’t deserve. She was sobbing quietly behind me, never saying a word. She never did know how to deal with life.
“I’m sorry, Papa,” I whispered.
At my show of remorse, Papa relented and came forward, putting his arms around me. I squeezed him hard, fighting down the sickening combination of hatred and panic that was still there and which certainly had become his reason for leaving. I tried to show him only my desperation in my return embrace.
“I love you, Hannele,” he said. “You know that. The distance means nothing. I really am doing this for us.”
“I know that, Papa,” I said, for I really so much wanted to believe it. He had, after all, always provided for Mama and me, hadn’t he? We’d always had a beautiful apartment to live in, and he’d spoiled me with the finest dresses and books and piano lessons. All the necessary things for a good life. It wasn’t his fault if bad people were always taking advantage of him, forcing him to go to America to get more money. Was it? Was it?
Papa released me and straightened. He smoothed back his hair, shiny and golden like the sun-drenched wheat of the peasants’ fields outside the city, and replaced his hat. “I promise I’ll send for you when I have enough money,” he said.
“I know, Papa,” I said again, really only wanting to grab him again and hang on. But I was probably already going to spend eternity burning in Gehinnom for what I’d just said. I could not risk anymore offensive behavior.
Papa brushed off his coat and looked at Mama. “You have my address where David and I will be staying?”
Mama only nodded. My back to her, I knew her plump cheeks had to be wet and shiny with tears. She still had not said a word, and I feared that she had lost all power of speech. I faced both the lonely prospect of my Papa’s absence and cold silence from my mute mother.
I remember turning around and looking into her eyes, though, and seeing the same fear in them that I had. She, too, did not want to see Papa’s eyes flash in anger that way or his face redden and swell as it had. Her own father had been angry and volatile. I had always hated being around my grandfather, and when Mama was my age, she had gone so far as to swear she would not marry a man like him. Well, she thought she had succeeded because Papa almost never got mad. Apparently, she had not noticed the signs of someone with suppressed anger, released in bursts when prodded enough.
Papa kissed us each on the cheek, in such a way that really, you’d have thought he was merely going on a short business trip rather than immigrating to America. He went to the door and turned to look at us one last time with an expression, I could have sworn, for one split moment, his pained expression conveyed doubt. But the softness that had come into his eyes, the trembling of his lips, had been just a flash, so quick, that I wonder to this day if I really saw it at all. And then he was gone.
When the door closed behind him, I surged forward, crying, ”No!” Mama tightened her grip on my shoulders, halting me. “No, Hannah,” she whispered. “Don’t make it worse.” I wanted to die when she said that. How could it have been worse? But she had surprised me with the sudden firmness in her hands, her fervent determination to spare me more pain. She can show that kind of strength sometimes in desperate moments, and it is this part of her that enables me to forgive her worst transgressions against me. The clarity of her intention in that moment compelled me to obey.
Papa’s leaving changed our entire lives. Everything else we had left with him. Mama could not afford to stay in Warsaw without his help. But even if she could have, she wouldn’t, for Warsaw was now the city of her complete undoing. So she sold the apartment and moved herself, me, and my cat Masha to Wolensk, the shtetl where she had grown up, 180 kilometers northeast of Warsaw, near the Ukrainian border, back to her old house where her brother, Leo Goldman, was living with his second wife, Sylvia.
Uncle Leo had not been thrilled about having us come to live with him. He never said this outright, but people’s feelings often emanate from them in spite of what they say. The house had been a sort of honeymoon cottage for him and Auntie Sylvia since he had divorced his first wife and remarried. Well, I guess God decided that ten years for a honeymoon was long enough. But Mama softened the blow by giving Uncle Leo a sizeable share of the sale of our apartment toward expenses.
The only thing that made our move less drastic for me was that Wolensk is a good sized shtetl, not one of those one-horse-and-wagon shtetls made up of a small cluster of rickety, falling-down houses. The large Jewish Quarter has several synagogues, many blocks of houses, and a cemetery. The main street in Wolensk, Polaski Street, is wide and busy, full of shops owned and run by both Jews and Poles. That’s where Uncle Leo’s general store is. There’s also a public library, a movie house and two market places, one for livestock and the other for fruits, vegetables and other wares. We have a volunteer fire department, manned by both Jews and Poles, plus several sports teams, social clubs and schools. I think that if it hadn’t been this way, I should have been completely depressed. But as it is, there is almost always something going on to distract me from my troubles.
So contained in this personal history of mine lies the big truth that Solomon ignores in spite of all evidence. Simply stated, even if real love does exist, eventually it will be taken from you in some horribly cruel way, whether by death or betrayal or divorce, or by someone’s fickle heart. Because that is the way God plays with His creation.
I suppose if I had grown up with Reb Weiss for a father, I, too, would see the world the way Solomon does. Reb Weiss is a pious and learned man, the beadle of our synagogue since the turn of the century. I reflect on this possibility every time Solomon’s and my so drastically different views of life clash, and I can think only that maybe part of God’s game is giving some people better parents than others, perhaps according to how much He either loves them or hates them. Certainly, Solomon would be among the loved ones, for he, though abandoned by his birth parents when he was only a few months old, had had the good fortune to be left on Reb Weiss’s doorstep.
Really, the whole scenario could not have been more fortuitous for either of them. Reb Weiss was an aging widower whose wife had left him childless. His elder sister Zelda had come to take care of him years before while he was in mourning and never left. She v’chodded and v’drayed her brother for years to remarry, this time to a woman with a fertile womb. He always refused, insisting that he was not so anxious to replace his beloved Sarah, and that the Master of the Universe would give him a sign. Finally, after so many years, and neither of them really young enough to care for a child, Zelda gave up on him for a stubborn, foolish old man. These were Reb Weiss’s exact words he used when telling me this story.
Well, apparently, the Master of the Universe did not consider Reb Weiss too old for the responsibility. On one chilly morning in late April, he stepped out from the caretaker’s apartment just before dawn as he always did to light the synagogue and call the men to morning prayers. And there was Solomon in a basket, his little body wrapped in a tattered prayer shawl and a woman’s woolen kerchief.
“That was my sign from the Master of the Universe,” Reb Weiss said and pointed toward the ceiling. “He now saw I was no longer a foolish young man who didn’t know love from an onion in the ground. Maybe now He was thinking I can be a father to this pitzele. It was finally His will that I have a son He reached out and gently ruffled the back of Solomon’s dark hair, careful not to tip off his yarmulke. “I learned that day a most important lesson. We must be patient in this life,” he said. “The Master of the Universe has His own time. And it is much longer than ours!”
So Solomon grew up in the glow of all that love, affection and romantic stuff. In the name of love, Reb Weiss even answered Solomon’s mysterious origins. “Your mother and father were starving refugees of the Great War,” Reb Weiss told him. “Many Jews were driven from their home by the Germans on one side and the Cossacks on the other. They could no longer feed you, and the Master of the Universe guided them here to me so I could care for you and raise you.”
Reb Weiss is certain that this is what happened. His certainty is etched into the lines of his face, the wisdom of it woven into his beautiful sacred beard, a soft fan the colors of salt and pepper sifted together. He is a good man, Reb Weiss is, honored that Solomon came into his life, grateful to the Master of the Universe, and proud of the son who, by the age of ten, had distinguished himself as a scholar of Toyreh, and was constantly sought out by men many times his age for scriptural interpretations.
So the question is, how did Solomon and I end up as friends? How did a young religious man who, by the way, is next in line for the seat of spiritual leader of the Wolensk Hasidic dynasty, a Torah scholar who, aside from his virtuosic command of Scripture is also beset by mystical visions—which was what really brought the Wolensker rebbe’s attention to him—who grew up poor and has never seen a moving picture, turn out to have as his best friend a young modern woman whose dresses do not completely cover her arms and legs, comes from a big city, is schooled in French, German and Polish, sees every moving picture possible and is someone he is not even supposed to look at or speak to, much less spend every possible opportunity with having tea in the kitchen? Ah, this is the story that stirs my heart because it is the first thing in my life I have ever really had to call my own, the only thing that cannot ever be taken from me under any circumstance— the way everything and everyone else will be, including Solomon. Or should I say, especially Solomon.
According to Solomon, our friendship did not begin the day that he and I actually spoke to each other for the first time, a winter morning in 1937 when he saved my life. Really, he says, it began the day Mama and I and Mashele moved in with Uncle Leo and Auntie Sylvia, which also happened to be the same day Reb Weiss told Solomon that he had been promised in marriage to Chava, the Wolensker Rebbe’s daughter, securing his place as the Rebbe’s successor.