“Wait,” called the Rebbe, and motioned for me to come back. I turned from the door and stood once more before the Rebbe. “Are you a chosson?” the Rebbe asked. His piercing gaze stared me through. “I’m a bachur,” I explained.
“How old are you?” the Rebbe questioned.
The Rebbe moved his hand towards a plate of cake on the table. He lifted a piece and placed it in my hand. Lekach – a piece of cake from the Rebbe, a segulah that one’s needs be granted. I took the piece of cake, recited the bracha, and heard the Rebbe say amein.
“May Hashem bentch you,” the Rebbe said, “that you should soon become a chosson.”
Before the year was out, I was engaged.
It was with some excitement that I prepared to go with my father and Nachum. It would be a chance to see a face that stirred familiar feelings of awe and respect. And, I thought with a smile… I’d be seeing my shadchan.
On the appointed day, we drove from Boro Park to Williamsburg. I sat and drove, watching the miles of road-ribbon disappear beneath the hood of the car. Father sat next to me, and Nachum in the back. There was a certain energy in the car, the tension of anxiety, and hope stretched so tight, with longing and daring to wish and not daring to hope and only maybe-
I seemed to feel the three hearts in the car thumping in unison, waiting, waiting. The ribbon of road did not slide lazily, as it often did. It ran, streaming beneath me, beneath my foot pressed just a tad harder than usual, streaming to match the tempo of those thumping hearts.
Soon we would see the Rebbe.
The waiting room was filled with people. There were not nearly as many frum yidden as there are today, and though the wait was substantial, we knew we would get in. Finally a gabbai called us, and we were ushered in to see the Rebbe.
One does not sit in front of a rebbe. We stood there, Father, Nachum, and I, and the Rebbe looked at us with his kind and serious eyes.
The Rebbe offered his hand, and we all gave him shalom.
Nachum was a Litvack through and through. He didn’t know what to do with the kvittel. “Give it to the Rebbe,” Father said in an undertone. Nachum carefully and respectfully handed the folded paper to the great man. The Rebbe took it, held it in his hand. His brow creased with concentration as he began to read. As he stared at the paper, his look became intensely involved, focused with concentration, thought, and, perhaps… pain.
What was the Rebbe thinking already? Nachum watched, saw the face, concentrated so focusedly on him, his life, his pain.
“Rebbe,” he said, in a voice that cried out on its own.
He cleared his throat and continued. “I married my wife when she was seventeen. The day we got married, the bombs were already falling. After the chuppah we packed up our things and ran east, away from Warsaw and the Germans.”
He paused for a heartbeat, looking down. I knew he was seeing things, things that took years of his life, of his soul, his existence, pressed into these short, concise phrases.
He continued. “The Russians came from the east and took half of Poland. So we got stuck under the rule of the Russians.”
The Russians were not the Germans. But living under their rule had been no picnic. Everyone knew that.
Nachum looked up. His eyes, his face, were half-closed. But in the small space between his eyelids I saw the burning shine. The pain, buried and dulled, burned.
Pause. Three years in Siberia.
Three years in Siberia.
“There was no mikveh.”
And here Nachum looked up, and his eyes pleaded with the Rebbe, with the twisted barb of superhuman effort remembered. “Rebbe… I was taken there by force. It wasn’t my choice. But there was no mikveh. I was there almost three years… I never touched my wife with a small finger.”