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A Mother Stood Straight and Proud

Freda Isaksen

Klip, klop, klip, klop, klip, klop. When Rivka heard the familiar noise she stood still and stopped kneading the dough for that day’s bread. She didn’t need to look out of the tiny window of her kitchen to see the cause of the familiar pounding on the village street, for she recognized the sounds and she knew what it meant. For the past several days she had listened and been thankful that the sound of the horses hooves did not stop at her door.

Rivka was aware that the Czar of Russia had decreed that all the Jewish boys of the land were to be conscripted into his army, she also knew that the young lads would be forcibly taken by the Cossacks from their homes at a moment’s notice to serve in the Czar’s army for a period of twenty-five years, that is if they survived those cruel years of forced servitude.

Every day she had heard the trotting horse’s hooves grow ever louder as they approached the door of her family’s humble dwelling, then diminish as they passed by and then stopped as they reached the door of one of the neighbor’s cottages where a young frightened boy was attempting to hide from his inevitable fate. She heard the mother scream for pity and then the aftermath of wailing as the boy was removed by the intruder. Today the horse and his rider passed by her cottage but Rivka was fully aware that at any time a horse would stop at her home, the mounted Cossack would dismount and knock sharply on the wooden door and announce his given orders. For Rivka had a young son who was just approaching his adolescent years and would be considered by the Czar to be ready and able for conscription into his army.

There were alternatives that had been successfully attempted by some Jewish mother and fathers. She could take a sharp knife and maim her son by cutting off one or more of his fingers or toes, the more the boy was disfigured the greater would be his chances of inability to serve the Czar. Or she could force him to run, run away into the unknown and vast landscape of Russia to escape this cruel regime of Russia and cross a border to another unknown country. This would mean that she could probably lose him forever.

But how does a mother find the courage for either of these possible solutions that could only bring another kind of hardship to a young child and his family?

Rivka knew that she must form a plan for the day that would most certainly come when the horse and its rider would have his orders to stop at her door. She lay awake night after night tossing and turning in her bed not daring to discuss the dilemma with her husband. She thought her head would burst from the strain, then in the morning she looked with dread upon her son’s face and at eyes that seemed to be pleading, “Please Mama, find a solution before they come and take me away!” But he never spoke the words out loud, only the fear of the future was evident on his countenance.

All the family knew that they would not have long to wait for the Cossack to come. When the first day of Chanukah was to be celebrated and Rivka was trying to give the impression that all was normal in her household in order to keep up the family’s morale and tradition. She was mixing the dough for the latkes. She had beaten the eggs and added the grated potatoes and onions, the oil was heating and the first batch of latkes were already sizzling in the frying pan when she heard the familiar klip, klop of horse’s hooves on the cobbled street. The falling December snowflakes did not muffle the sound. Rivka turned from the stove and looked at her son sitting in a corner of the kitchen trying to concentrate on his studies for he too had heard the approaching danger. She looked at her two daughters spooning the sour cream and applesauce onto serving dishes ready to be eaten with the latkes.

It did not surprise her when the horse stopped at her family’s cottage and there came a sharp rap on the wooden door. Rivka stopped preparing the latkes and stood straight and proud as she opened the door of her poor abode and confronted the tall Cossack attired in his smart uniform with a long warm coat and polished black boots. “Good day, your honor,” Rivka greeted him with apparent good humor and not a tremor in her voice. “Please step into our home.” The young Cossack stared at her, completely taken aback. This was not the usual tearful and pleading approach he had encountered previously at the houses of the Jews. He stood for a moment on the cold doorstep unsure of how to reply, but Rivka quickly took his arm and escorted him into her warm kitchen, she sat him down at the kitchen table which was already set with a white cloth, knives, forks and plates along with the creamy and fluffy sour cream and juicy yellow applesauce. The brass Chanukah menorah with two candles ready to be lit at sunset was the centerpiece of the table. Like a typical Jewish mother welcoming a guest Rivka said, “Eat, eat and enjoy. Taste the delicious hot latkes and help yourself to the sour cream and apples.”

The young soldier was hungry and tired, it was nearing the end of the day and he was weary of the tedious job of rounding up young, whining boys and forcing them to leave their mother’s loving arms. He smelled the luscious aroma of the fresh latkes and when they were placed before him he eyed the appetizing round and crunchy brown delicacy and couldn’t resist eating them and devoured all that was placed before him, then washed them down with the vodka which Rivka artfully set before him.

As his appetite was satiated he turned and looked at the three children, a boy and two girls and they seemed to be his equals. He stood up at attention and said “Thank you, my friends, I’ll remember to ask for latkes again.” The Czar’s Cossack left that humble kitchen alone as Rivka watched him and still stood straight and proud, because now she knew that she had decided what the family would do. Somewhere, somehow, they would reach a land of freedom, together.


Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at math.wayne.edu.

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