“Oh God of our fathers,” the cantor began. His plummy voice broke. “God,” he began again, and this time he kept talking, though his face glistened like glass. “We of Congregation Beth Shalom accept this sacred scroll, the only remnant of Your worshippers of the village of Slavkov, whose every inhabitant perished in Majdanek. Whenever we read from this Torah we will think of our vanished brothers and sisters and their dear children. God, may we be worthy of this inheritance.”
He began a Hebrew prayer, which I might have followed, but I was thinking of what I’d learned in confirmation class about the village of Slavkov. Its Jews were artisans and peddlers and money lenders. Some of them read the Holy Books all day long in the House of Study. Then I thought about things I only guessed: some of them drank too much and others coveted their neighbor’s silver and one or two of them lay with peasant women. A few little boys plotted to set their cheder on fire. On Sunday nights a group of men gathered in a storefront, putting troubles aside for a few hours, consulting the wise numeracy of a pack of cards.
The cantor ended his prayer. He handed the scroll to the rabbi. The rabbi held it vertically in his arms. He turned toward the ark. The president of the congregation opened the ark. The rabbi placed the Czech Torah beside our everyday one.
The congregation sobbed. I sobbed, too, weeping over a confusion of disconnected things, vehr vaist: Margie who missed her mother and the rabbi who lived alone; childless Mrs. Cantor and forsaken Mrs. Sam; the sons and daughters of the Jews of Slavkov, who had dreamed of love and were ashes now. My cheeks flamed. I gripped the pew in front of me, looked at my knuckles, looked up, and met the usurer’s rueful gaze.
Excerpted from “Chance” from Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories Copyright © 2011 by Edith Pearlman. Used by permission of Lookout Books, an imprint of the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.