Zay Gezunt, America [Be Well, America]
Hershel was born in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1913. His parents were Russian immigrants from the Palest of the Pale of Settlement who spoke only Yiddish. Hershel spent seven to nine years mastering basic life skills in kindergarten until one day he came home from school practically tumbling with excitement. He was followed by a wild gang of little children, for his fellow kindergarteners, being much younger than he, clung to him much in the way that extremely well-manicured women cling to extremely well-manicured men. Hershel shook them off with vigor.
His teachers had told him that he could advance to first grade. He was sure to be a doctor.
But when Hershel, or Heshie, as he was called by the town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld, walked in the door, he was greeted with a great surprise. His parents had skipped town. His baby sister was sitting in the crib, applesauce all over her mug; his older brother was shooting peanuts out of his nose, aiming straight for the town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld who was passing on the street; Heshie’s twin sisters were counting rubber duckies in the bathtub. They’d been roasting in the water for G-d knows how long. When Heshie first walked into the bathroom he mistook them for two giant figs.
“Figs!” cried Heshie. The boy loved figs, and what better could a boy who loved figs imagine than two giant figs floating in a bathtub?
“No, not figs!” cried the girls. “We’re girls! It’s us, Mirrele and Sheynele.”
Heshie ran from the bathtub, horrified by the nakedness of his sisters, embarrassed that he could have mistaken them for one of the seven holy fruits and grains.
The children called a family meeting. Boarded up the windows. Locked the doors. Sent smoke signals out the chimney and loaded tight their pistols. Nobody, not even the town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld, was going to get into the house, the castle, the fortress, the stronghold, the citadel, the redoubt, the bastion…
Two days later Heshie wiped the applesauce from his baby sister’s angelic, swarthy face and, hoisting her on his back, pulled his woolen socks up to his waist. He opened the door. The sky was blue. Pennsylvania was a magnificent place to be in September. The town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld walked by chomping on an apple like a dumb horse but that didn’t even bother a fly.
Heshie was a first-grader now.
Placing one left foot in front of another, dancing to the dreamy piglets of the alphabet and the fishes of gefilte heaven, the boy put his sister’s hand to his lips. The hand was white, oaky, delicate with a hint of lavender and tobacco. She’d gotten into the wine casks again. There was shmutz beneath the fingernails.
Heshie stuffed his pockets with dirt. It might as well have been gold.
“Zay gezunt, America!”