“A Purim what?” I press the phone into my cheek to blot out the overwhelming noise of the human mass moving along with me from one street intersection to another. Call-waiting beeped and showed my uncle Boris calling, probably to wish me happy Purim.
“A Purim Chagiga, you know? A celebration.” Sonya pours her recently acquired lingo into my ear. “After the Megillah reading we”ll have a party. Come. I promise plenty of single men. This could be your lucky day, a Purim miracle, you know?”
No matter how busy she is with her own life, Sonya always finds the time and emotional strength to work on mine, attempting to find me a husband, so far to no avail.
Why do I do this to myself, I wanted to know on a crowded rush-hour train ride to central New Jersey after a busy day at work . Spending Purim with my best friend's family would be great if it did not coincide with the eternal search for a mate, which commenced the moment Sonya picked me up in her minivan.
Over the years even I, the non-observant, Russian born, thirty-something, modern Jewess, managed to hear the Megillah, the Book of Eshter, many times in the synagogues and temples of New York and New Jersey. But this time it felt different. We had our books opened, but unable to follow Hebrew, I barely paid attention to the translation between stealing glances beyond the glass separation. The mechitza, as Sonya called it, transparent with stripes here and there, did not obstruct the view of the other side of the room, the male side.
As always, the first mention of the evil Haman made me jump in my seat while I was staring at a familiar face in the row behind me on the other side. The congregation came alive with noisemakers, feet stamping, and booing. Recovering from the initial shock, I looked back at a man and wondered how my uncle Boris managed to be on the East Coast without my mother knowing, and why he looked so young? Reaching into my bag for a phone to call my mom, I realized it should wait until after the reading. After all, I was an outsider and the women around me might not appreciate a phone conversation amid the story of a beauty pageant.
“I can't believe my uncle Boris is here!” I whispered in Sonya's ear.
“Here? Where?” She turned her head to observe the men.
“In the next row, third from the glass.” I couldn't remember the word. “He's my mother's younger brother, from San Francisco. Haven't you met him?”
“I don't see who you mean. Alex learns with these guys twice a week,” Sonya answered in a practiced whisper. “There is Michael Finkel next to the mechitza, single, by the way, Joseph Stein, engaged, and David Berman, also single, successfully employed, speaks five languages, and is very available.” The emphasis on available, Sonya turned back to her book. “I thought you should meet him, thirty-eight and very nice.”
I looked at the page in front of me, but could hardly see anything. Hebrew and English characters together with words danced a phantasmagorical hora accompanied by periodic clamor from some three hundred people. Dizzy, I closed my eyes and waited.
Exiting the women's section I caught a glimpse of Alex, Sonya's husband, moving to the door wearing a clown's red nose, holding hands of their kids, a Sleeping Beauty and Batman, and chatting with the other men. Concentrating on not falling behind or forward I watched Sonya nod slightly at her husband and point him with a brief sweep of her eyes.
We entered the synagogue's social hall, abuzz with activity, filled with kids and adults in costumes and without. A band setting up in one corner made the usual noises, while the food spread on tables in the back of the room attracted almost everyone. Searching the crowd for my uncle's face, I followed Sonya to the table with drinks. She found a seltzer for me while focusing her attention on the task at hand.
“Let me introduce you to David. Alex thinks highly of him.”
“There he is!” I motioned to her and rushed to a group of suited men near the stage. Sonya followed a step behind.
“Boris!” I called as I joined the circle of Alex's friends. Not getting any response I faced my uncle look-a-like. Now up-close I could see my mistake. This was a man who looked a lot like Boris--a whole lot-- same nose and eyes, but his smile was different.
“This is David Berman, Masha.” Alex stepped in. “David, Masha is Sonya's friend from middle school days. Let me tell you, they are like joined at the ear or something.” Alex went quiet for a moment.
This man in front of me was no Boris, I could see it now, but also speechless, I just stood there unable to look away. Fourteen years older than me, Boris always treated me as an equal which was why we were very close when he lived in New York, and for a year or two in my teens, I fancied myself in love with him even if hypothetically. Now we see each other at major family events and I love my cousins whose photos I never tire to see on Facebook.
“David speaks Russian, by the way.” Sonya tried to control the conversation. “Even better than you, Masha.”
The band finished tuning their instruments and launched into a happy song. Alex appeared with a bottle and poured us all wine. At least, I knew the blessing.
With all the introductions concluded in raised voices, we watched the dancers, a circle of men and another one of women. Sonya turned away to track down her Sleeping Beauty and Batman and inspect their plates full of junk food, leaving me with the guys.
“So, why did you call me Boris?” David asked in a slight, indeterminable accent. Spanish? I couldn't tell. There was something so familiar about him. I felt dizzy again.
“You look so much like my uncle.” I took out my cell phone and found Boris' recent photo in a wet suit holding a scuba diving mask. “Don't you think? Of course, you are much younger, but still...”
“Yes, we do look alike. How weird.” David stared at the photo, then looked at me. “It's like seeing yourself in the future, and not so distant. Weird.” He returned the cell phone and continued, “Do you live in the city?”
Waiting for the train, more than two hours later, I felt like we've known each other for years. He told me about living in Columbia with his family and moving to New York. I told him about being born in Russia and moving here at the age of four. We both had learned Russian from our grandparents. Maybe Sonya was right after all. Maybe this was my lucky Purim day. I don't remember ever liking a guy from the very first moment.
We spent Sundays in museums and many weeknights watching movies. For the two evenings a week when David learned with Alex and their friends I signed up for a Judaism for Beginner' class at a local synagogue. Seeing each other every day, we both knew it was fate, nothing else.
Still, David surprised me one Sunday in May when we drove for what seemed like hours and arrived at a sculpture park. Trees in full bloom, we took pictures of each other and together in every setting. Then we approached a poppy field, much like in the Monet’s Woman with a Parasol. Overwhelmed we sat on a nearby bench and took it all in. As if out of nowhere David produced two plastic wine glasses, filled them quickly from a bottle hidden in his backpack and said the blessing over wine.
“I want to tell you about my grandfather Max. My father's father.” David said after we drank. “He met my grandmother Rachel on a street in Paris in the summer of 1945. Two weeks later he proposed to her in a poppy field with a ring, the only thing he had from his old life. Less than a year later they left for South America.” David rolled the empty cup in his fingers. “He told me it was love at first sight. He loved her the moment he saw her, even before he knew they had a language in common. And that is precisely what happened to me.” He took my hand in his. “I thank God for making me look like your uncle, for otherwise, you might've noticed my friend Michael and not me.” He took a small box from his pocket and opened it. “This ring my grandmother gave to me when I told my grandparents I found you. It belonged to my grandfather Max's mother. She gave it to him right before he was shipped to the front.”
I held a lovely gold ring in my finger with a pearl in the middle framed like a flower with tiny petals and leaves. This moment so tender, I tried not to cry.
“It's so beautiful and looks exactly like my grandma's ring. My grandma Riva wore it all of her life and let me play with it when I was little.” I put the ring on my finger and looked at David. “Thank you! If this is you asking me, then I say yes. And I can't wait to show it to my grandparents.” We kissed and linked our fingers again.
“One thing confuses me, though, Max told me this is one of a kind, that he made it himself for his mother from an earring whose pair was lost, and since it was their only valuable item, she gave it to him when he enlisted. Na cherniy den,” she said. “For a black day.” David touched the ring with his thumb.
I didn't let him continue. “Here is the story in my family: soon after the war they had barely any food, let alone jewelry. When grandpa Avram, the jeweler, decided to marry, his mother gave him the only earring she had, the one with a pearl. It took him a long time, but Avram made a ring for his bride, Riva.” I looked at the ring shining in the sun.
“My parents are away in Europe now. But you should meet my grandparents and I yours.” David said. “What if we take the four of them out to dinner? How about tonight?”
I dialed my grandparents' number and told them the news. Grandma Riva cried when she heard her favorite bubele finally found herself a man, repeating time and again that her tears are of joy. The dinner agreed on, we drove back to the city talking about our histories.
“You never told me where Max was from.” I said, the beginning of a thought spinning in my mind.
“Minsk. His family perished in the war. He fought with the Red Army, then was taken prisoner, escaped, crossed the front lines many times. Somehow, ended up in France by the end of the war.” David, oblivious to the traffic jam near Lincoln Tunnel, continued. “A funny story he told me about his last name. When they were getting their papers he wrote his last name in the wrong spot, so it got truncated, instead of--”
“Wait, Minsk? Are you sure?” I felt cold spread through my body. “Wait, what year was he born, your grandfather Max? Around 1920?”
“Yes.” David stopped abruptly, then moved the car to a shoulder and stopped again. “How did you know?”
“And what about his last name? Go on, I will tell you in a minute.” I needed the last piece of the puzzle.
“Yes, he became Max Zil Berman.” David finished.
“My mother's family lived in Minsk before the war, her maiden name was Zilberman, and her uncle Max disappeared during the war, missing in action.”
“Max made inquiries and was informed that his parents died when the Germans came to Minsk and his brother was killed in the army.” David touched my cheek to wipe away my tears, happy ones.
“Grandpa Avram heard about the Germans from a friend who escaped from Poland and made his parents leave Minsk on a train at the very last minute. He joined the partisans and was wounded several times. They received two death notices for him and mourned both sons until he found them in Moscow in 1946.” The old stories I heard through my childhood arranged themselves in my mind and I felt like a writer about to embark on a novel.
“That makes us second cousins, Masha.” David smiled. “I hope we can still marry.”
“I know we can, I studied that chapter very carefully.” I laughed and dialed Boris' number.