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Friday, 27 February 2009

Zayde's Cat

By Sydney Halet

As I sit here in the soft quiet of the pre-dawn hours, I remember the stories that my bubbie (pronounced buh-bee) - grandmother, of blessed memory, used to tell me about how she and my zayde (pronounced zay-dee) - grandfather, also of blessed memory lived. One story especially lingers with me. Maybe the story should begin with “Once upon a time…” because it seems so improbable, but it doesn’t. So where to begin? I suppose, I should tell it as my bubbie told it to me - in my own words, of course.

It seems that my zayde, Morris, had a cat. There is nothing remarkable about that EXCEPT that he didn’t need a cat, he didn’t want a cat, he didn’t even like cats. So, why did my zayde have a cat? Let me explain this meinsa (little story).

My bubbie and zayde lived on the second floor in a cold-water, walk-up flat on Blue Hill Avenue in the Roxbury section of Boston. They lived above a delicatessen within walking distance of the Otisfield Street Shul. The word “shul” originally meant school with a small synagogue attached. After a while it meant the small synagogue. But that is neither here nor there.

Anyway, my zayde Morris was a ragman who had come to his “Blessed America” from Russia to start a new life. After all, “the streets were paved with gold,” weren’t they? Twice a day - once in the morning and once in the late afternoon - and every shabbos (sabbath), my zayde would walk to shul to daven (pray).

One shabbos, a thin, black cat with a white blaze on its chest followed zayde Morris home from shul. With all of those other men coming home from shul, why my zayde? Who can say? HaShem (one of the names for God) works in strange, mysterious, and wondrous ways that man is still trying to figure out.

Zayde Morris trudged up the stairs in the dim hallway light with the cat, tail held high, following at his heels. There must have been such “tumult” (noise and confusion) when the cat walked into the apartment behind zayde. Bubbie got the broom for zayde to chase out the small intruder, but when he raised it, bubbie had a change of heart. She had a cat in Russia and suddenly decided to keep it. Zayde’ answer was “feh” (there is really no translation of this word, but to zayde it meant something like “not for me; it’s unclean.”). Zayde used “feh!” whenever he didn’t like something.

Since the cat was a female, bubbie named her Mary. Why she gave the cat that name also remains a mystery answerable only by HaShem. Mary, the cat, would jump up onto the iron accordion radiator and stare out the window waiting for zayde. As soon as she saw him trudging wearily down Blue Hill Avenue, she would jump off the radiator and sit in front of the door so that she would be the first one zayde saw.

When he opened the door, she would rub up against his unyielding leg. He would nudge her away gently, without looking down, and plod into the apartment. How strange that a cat that zayde had not liked or wanted would take such a liking to him.

Every shabbos, when zayde went to shul, Mary would follow, tail held high. When he went inside, Mary would sit just outside the open door into the dimness somewhat like Eli, a high priest, had done at Shiloh when Hannah (the first prophet Samuel’s mother) had done when she prayed for a child that she was having trouble conceiving.

It was on one of these shabbos outings that things changed for zayde Morris. He came out of shul talking to Max, the butcher, and Chayim, the tailor and upholsterer about the Torah parsha (portion) of the week, when they saw Mary.

“What a beautiful cat, Morris!”

“Look how its fur shines, Morris!”

“Where did you get such a fine cat, Morris?”

Zayde stood a little bit straighter as he tried to answer their questions. The cat had given him a little kavod (pride or honor) from his peers. He told them how the cat had followed him home from shul one shabbos and how the cat had adopted him like an angel from HaShem. He told them about how the cat waited at his apartment door for him to come home.

Of course, like with all stories that zayde told, he embellished it a little here and there and left out parts that were not suited. As he talked, he bent down and picked up the cat, something quite unexpected from zayde who didn’t like cats, and caressed her head as he talked to his friends. Mary purred in his arm contentedly.

“To think,” Max said, “you are the possessor of the first, and probably only, Jewish cat.”

“Now, if you could only teach her to daven,” Chayim added, “you’d really have something!”

They marveled at the cat for a few more minutes, each man taking turns patting her, and then they went their separate ways. Zayde Morris kvelled (showed a joyous pride) as he made his way back to the apartment still holding and caressing Mary in his arm.

His step was no longer tired and plodding. He wanted to tell bubbie about the way Max and Chayim had given him covet because of Mary. Mary became malkah shel bayis (queen of the house).

After that, things seemed to change for zayde. His step seemed bouncier and lighter somehow. He no longer dragged as he climbed the stairs to the apartment. When Mary greeted him at the door and rubbed against his leg, zayde bent down, picked her up and caressed her head. She lay peacefully in the crook of his arm and purred.

It’s strange, but zayde still didn’t like animals with the exception of malkah shel bayis. He would still say “feh” when he talked about animals. Of course, zayde would go into the bathroom, say the netilat prayer (prayer for the washing of the hands) before he washed his hands thoroughly and sat down to supper.

Zayde Morris’ mood seemed to change too. His voice was softer, his eyes had a twinkle. He even showed a sense of humor. Who knew that my zayde had a sense of humor? His business improved to the point where he opened a used clothing store near the Grove Hall section of Roxbury. Mary followed zayde to “the store,” as zayde called it, every day. She still followed him to shul.

So it was every morning, as well as on Shabbos. She sat in her favorite place just outside the door and peered into the dimness as zayde leg’t tefillin (put on phylacteries Sunday through Friday) and davened shacharis (morning prayers). Then, they would be off to “the store” (except on shabbos of course) where women would come in to shop for bargains, but also to pat Mary.

Old Jewish men would congregate in the store or on old, wooden spindle-chairs outside in the sunshine to argue some minute point of the LAW. When they got stuck on some point, they would go into the dimly lit store to ask zayde’s opinion. His peers now recognized how wise zayde was about a lot of things - not just rags. He kept a copy of the Chumash (Five Books of the Torah in book form) in the back room where he would study. He would bring out the Chumash and say to those who would ask, “So what do you think, Morris?”

“Let’s look it up in the Chumash.”

The coolish days of early April gave way to the warmer days of May. Bubbie’s window box of yellow and orange-brown marigolds was blooming. She replaced the white cardboard sign saying “COAL” with one saying “ICE” in her window. The winter was cold enough to keep her food in metal boxes with hinged metal lids in the back hall which was unheated, but now, with the warmth, bubbie had to use her wooden icebox with the drip-pan underneath. She was able to hang her clothes, using real wooden clothespins, on the wooden back porch instead of hanging them on a rack in the bathtub.

Zayde’s business was prospering as was his reputation as a Torah and Talmud maven (one with great knowledge). Mary would sit in the sunny doorway all day with her head tilted towards the men discussing the Torah and Law as if she were listening to their conversation. Every now and then, she would go into “the store” and look this way and that as if she were checking to make sure that zayde was all right.

The warm days of May were replaced with the hot days of June, July and August. Mary still followed zayde to shul every day and then to “the store” where she took one of her usual places - either inside where she could be caressed by customers or out in the sunshine to sit and listen to the old men discussing some part of the Torah or some minute point of the Law.

Bubbie used to say of Mary, “Strange the cat never seems to gain weight with all we feed her.”

To which zayde would say, “HaShem has determined she should be what she is as He has determined we should be what we are!”

That would end the conversation, but Bubbies being what they are, mine would try to feed Mary more to fatten her up, with and “Ess, ess.” (eat, eat) added for good measure. To no avail. Mary remained as thin and sleek as the day she came into the house.

August passed into the fall days of September. Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur came and went. Shortly after accompanying zayde to Yom Kippur services, Mary disappeared. The next morning, zayde didn’t open the shop. Instead, he searched for Mary. Was she stolen? Was she dead? He didn’t know, but he had to find out - which was unusual for a man who didn’t like animals, especially cats.

Zayde walked down Blue Hill Avenue and took a right onto Lawrence Avenue. He looked in at the Shepatovka Shul, but she wasn’t there. He looked in at the Sephardic Shul on the corner of Lawrence Avenue and Normandy Street. She wasn’t there either. Something told zayde to go to Intervale Street.

What had given him the idea? Who could say? He walked down Normandy to Intervale and took a left. Halfway up the little hill he saw a boy sitting on one of the concrete stoops in front of a red-brick tenement. The boy looked to be ten or eleven years old. Curled up in the boy’s lap was Mary. Zayde wanted to angrily demand that the boy give back the cat, but as he approached the sandy-brown-haired boy, he saw that the boy was thin, almost emaciated. His clothes were ragged, his pants were too short and he had holes in the toes of his shoes. Zayde softened.

“Nice cat you have, boychik!” zayde said softly.

“Thank you!” was all the boy whispered.

“What’s your name, boychik?” Zayde asked.

“Avraham,” came the one word answer.

“Well, Avraham, where did you get such a wonderful cat?”

Avraham looked up at zayde for the first time while he continued to caress the cat lying in his lap. He looked at zayde with deep brown eyes showing a mild curiosity about who was asking the questions about the cat.

“Do you own the cat, mister? My mother said that I could keep the cat if nobody claimed her.”

“And your father?”

“My father’s dead. He died when I was three.”

“Well, how do you live?”

“Mama takes in laundry from the neighbors. It doesn’t pay much. I do odd jobs and run errands for the neighbors. We manage.”

“Don’t you go to school?”

“I go to the Yeshivah on Elm Hill Avenue. Do you own the cat or don‘t you?”

Zayde looked at the boy and then at Mary lying peacefully in the boy’s lap. They looked like they belonged together.

“No, boychik, I don’t own the cat. Nobody does. She’s a very special cat and goes and comes as she pleases. My name is Morris and I own the used clothing store on Blue Hill Avenue. Tell your mama to come see me. I may have a job for her every day while you’re in cheder (Jewish School).”

With that, zayde turned and walked away. Zayde felt a chill run up and down his spine. It was the same chill he felt when he prayed shacharis. It was unexplainable. Why should he feel this chill when he wasn’t praying?

He walked home humming a Chasidic melody and whenever bubbie asked about Mary he would smile and say, “Somebody else needed her help!”

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 03:59 AM | Permalink | Email this post


What a wonderful, wonderful story, beautifully told. Thank you for sharing it. I loved how you portrayed the changing of the seasons by the changing of the signs for "coal" and "ice."

I don't know where to begin. This is a love story at its finest. What great memories. You are a talented writer who can spin a tale while holding your readers mesmerized. And as an added bonus, I learned some Yiddish. Take a bow!

What a beautiful story and told so lovingly!

What a beautiful story and so well told!

I could relate to a lot of what you wrote about. I was born in Chelsea, Ma.

It was a big treat for me when my parents and I took the streetcar to Dorchester to visit family.

As a matter of fact they lived off of Intervale Street. I think it was Lucerne Street.

You wrote about "the icebox and the shechel that had to be emptied, the ice and coal sign in the window - I remember all of that!!

Do you remember Liebowitz's bakery and the Grove Hall Cafeteria? And that Deli where the politicians campaigned?

Since you know Yiddish so well I think you would enjoy visiting "Millie's Yiddish Class" at yiddishclass.blogspot.com.

Again, thanks for the memories!!

Your story is beautifully told and gave me goosebumps in anticipation of Morris's generosity of spirit.

Thank you for sharing this heartwarming story.

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story - it brought tears to my eyes.

Dear Sidney,

I can see alot of my own grandfather in this story. He,also,
came from Russia, was an orthodox Jew and sold rage to factories during the war.
This story should be published; you can check Cup of Comfort and Chicken soup for the soul, who are always publishing anthologies on cats, mothers, fathers, etc.
I loved reading some Yiddish expressions again.
A wonderful story with a poignant ending.

Very good story, should be published somewhere.

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What a beautiful story & what memories it brought back. I need some help. With some members of my family we are putting together a family tree and we are in hopes that someone might have a picture of the Anshe Shepitovka Synagogue on Lawrence Ave. Rox. and the Lawrence Ave. Synagogue. If you can help us we would be thrilled and ever so grateful.

To all of you who read my story as my wife printed it for you, I am pleased that you chose to read it and to comment. I've made it a part of my new book, Dream or Nightmare that I'm currently writing. It will contain short stories, poems, and original artwork (including a painting of the inside of the Lawrence Ave Shul). Again, THANK YOU for your kind comments!

Dear Sid,great story. B'shalom,Iris Katz

Hi Syd,
Your story brought back memories. I grew up on Intervale Street. Was your story partially true because you mentioned the areas where you and I lived growing uo?

Bernie S.

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